The city of Bellingham, through adoption of this shoreline master program, intends to implement the Washington State Shoreline Management Act and its policies including protecting the state’s shorelines and their associated natural resources, identifying areas for preferred uses, and providing opportunities for the general public to have access to and enjoy shorelines in general.

The Shoreline Management Act (SMA or the Act), RCW 90.58.020, states:

The legislature finds that the shorelines of the state are among the most valuable and fragile of its natural resources and that there is great concern throughout the state relating to their utilization, protection, restoration and preservation. In addition it finds that ever increasing pressures of additional uses are being placed on the shorelines necessitating increased coordination in the management and development of the shorelines of the state. The legislature further finds that much of the shorelines of the state and the uplands adjacent thereto are in private ownership; that unrestricted construction on the privately owned or publicly owned shorelines of the state is not in the best public interest and therefore, coordinated planning is necessary in order to protect the public interest associated with the shorelines of the state while, at the same time, recognizing and protecting private property rights consistent with the public interest. There is, therefore, a clear and urgent demand for a planned, rational, and concerted effort, jointly performed by federal state and local governments, to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.

It is the policy of the state to provide for the management of the shorelines of the state by planning for and fostering all reasonable and appropriate uses. This policy is designed to insure the development of these shorelines in a manner which, while allowing for limited reduction of rights of the public in the navigable waters, will promote and enhance the public interest. This policy contemplates protecting against adverse effects to the public health, the land and its vegetation and wildlife, and the waters of the state and their aquatic life, while protecting generally public rights of navigation and corollary rights incidental thereto.

The Act places additional importance on those shorelines of the state that are within the interest of all the citizens of Washington State. These are called shorelines of statewide significance (SSWS). In Bellingham, these are the shorelines of Bellingham Bay and Lake Whatcom.1 RCW 90.58.020 of the Shoreline Management Act goes on to state the following:

The legislature declares that interest of all people shall be paramount in the management of shorelines of statewide significance. The department (of Ecology) in adopting guidelines for shorelines of statewide significance, and local government in developing master programs for shorelines of statewide significance shall give preference to uses in the following order of preference which:

1. Recognize and protect the statewide interest over local interest;

2. Preserve the natural character of the shoreline;

3. Result in long-term over short term benefit;

4. Protect the resources and ecology of the shoreline;

5. Increase public access to publicly owned areas of the shorelines;

6. Increase recreational opportunities for the public in the shoreline;

7. Provide for any other element as defined in RCW 90.58.100 deemed appropriate or necessary.

In the implementation of this policy, the public’s opportunity to enjoy the physical and aesthetic qualities of natural shorelines of the state shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible consistent with the overall best interest of the state and the people generally. To this end uses shall be preferred which are consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of the state’s shoreline. Alterations of the natural condition of the shorelines of the state, in those limited instances when authorized, shall be given priority for single-family residences and their appurtenant structures, ports, shoreline recreational uses including but not limited to industrial and commercial developments which are particularly dependent on their location on or use of the shorelines of the state and other development that will provide an opportunity for substantial numbers of the people to enjoy the shorelines of the state. Alterations of the natural condition of the shorelines and shorelands of the state shall be recognized by the department. Shorelines and shorelands of the state shall be appropriately classified and these classifications shall be revised when circumstances warrant regardless of whether the change in circumstances occurs through man-made causes or natural causes. Any areas resulting from alterations of the natural condition of the shorelines and shorelands of the state no longer meeting the definition of ‘shorelines of the state’ shall not be subject to the provisions of Chapter 90.58 RCW.

Permitted uses in the shorelines of the state shall be designed and conducted in a manner to minimize, insofar as practical, any resultant damage to the ecology and environment of the shoreline area and any interference with the public’s use of the water. (RCW 90.58.020)

In order to implement this policy, the city, through this master program, strives to achieve the following objectives which are also identified in WAC 173-26-251(3) (Shoreline Guidelines) and BMC 22.04.030, General policies:

• The city has consulted with state agencies (regulatory and nonregulatory) and affected Indian tribes via the technical advisory committee for recommendations on protection of SSWS and the resources they provide.

• Preserve the SSWS for future generations by preventing irreversible harm or damage to the resource and implement restoration goals for long-term recovery.

• Identify areas where certain uses should be located and developed given the presence and importance of ecological resources within and outside of the city’s jurisdiction. Water-dependent uses, public access, recreational opportunities and essential public facilities are examples of uses that should be appropriately sited in order to protect a resource.

• Develop use regulations that are protective of the resource that a SSWS provides without conflicting with the overall objectives of the SMA.

• Develop consistency between the city’s comprehensive plan and the policies for SSWS. [Ord. 2013-02-005 § 2 (Exh. 1)].


The following summary provides an overview of the shoreline master program (SMP or program) contents with a brief explanation of its general format and procedures. Readers should refer to the introduction for additional information on the history and rationale behind shoreline management.

Program Format

The city of Bellingham SMP includes goals, policies and regulations. The SMP is a comprehensive plan for how shorelines should be used and developed over time. Goals, policies and regulations provide direction for shoreline users and developers on issues such as use compatibility, setbacks, public access, building height, parking locations, mitigation, and the like.

The general purpose, goals and policies are found in Chapters 22.01 and 22.02 BMC. Together they provide direction and context for the specific policies and regulations in the program. Policies are broad statements of intention that are generally phrased using words such as “should.” For example, “In-water structures should be constructed with material and treatments that will not impair or degrade water quality.” In contrast, regulations are requirements that are necessary to implement the policies. For example, “Treated pilings are prohibited in Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden.”

Chapter 22.03 BMC describes the shoreline jurisdiction consistent with state regulations as well as the shoreline environment designations that are applied to each shoreline reach. The environment designation section includes information on interpretation, purpose, management policies and general regulations such as buffers. The shoreline designations function similar to zoning districts in that they determine which uses are allowed, which are conditional, and which are prohibited in shoreline areas.

Shorelines designated as “shorelines of statewide significance” (SSWS) by the Shoreline Management Act (Chapter 90.58 RCW) are listed in Chapter 22.04 BMC, along with policies for their use. Shorelines of statewide significance are major resources from which all people of the state derive benefit. These areas must be managed to ensure optimum implementation of the Act’s objectives.

Chapter 22.05 BMC explains the types of development the program has jurisdiction over, which activities it recognizes as exempt or nonconforming, and its relationship to other ordinances and laws.

Chapter 22.06 BMC contains procedures and review criteria for substantial development permits, conditional use permits and shoreline variances. Chapter 22.07 BMC addresses the administration of the program’s regulations and other legal provisions.

General policies and regulations, including uses allowed in required buffers, criteria for maximizing a buffer area as well as the comprehensive policies and regulations for specific shoreline uses such as commercial development, industrial development, recreation, and the like, are described in Chapters 22.08 and 22.09 BMC. Some developments may be subject to more than one of the subsections.

Background Information

The 2004 City of Bellingham Shoreline Characterization and Inventory (SCI) is included as Appendix A.2 The policies and regulations of this SMP are based on the results of the SCI. This shoreline inventory was compiled to meet the requirements in RCW 90.58.100(1) and WAC 173-26-201(2). The city assembled a technical advisory committee consisting of the following state, local, tribal, and nonprofit agencies to assist with the SCI, and provide professional guidance and recommendations:

Department of Ecology

WA State Fish and Wildlife

Department of Natural Resources

Port of Bellingham

Whatcom County

Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe


Puget Sound Action Team

Coastal Geological Services Inc.


The city considered plans, studies, surveys, inventories, and systems of classification made or being made by federal, state, regional, or local agencies, by tribes and private individuals, and by other organizations dealing with pertinent shorelines of the state. The data sources are identified in the Literature Reviewed section of the SCI.

The SCI identifies data gaps that can be filled over time as resources become available. This will allow the city to build a more complete inventory so that when this SMP is updated or amended in seven years (as is required by state law), new data and information can be used to develop new goals, policies and regulations for shoreline protection.

The SCI includes a Geographic Information System (GIS) database. This GIS will link the inventory information to parcels and applicable goals, policies and regulations, and it will be easily updated as additional data become available. The SCI contains data on:

• Ecosystem-wide processes (landscape analysis): vegetative cover, impervious areas, soils, hydrology, and habitat connectivity. Areas are characterized as sustainable, not sustainable, or impaired.

• Water body/reach specific data: zoning, physical land use patterns, coverage within basin, critical areas, degraded areas, priority habitats, cleanup sites, public access sites, floodplains and channel migration zones, historic resources, sustainable conditions, fish use, restoration opportunities, and physical characteristics of shoreline. Shorelines are characterized as sustainable, not sustainable, or impaired.

Also included as part of the city’s SMP update is a restoration plan (Appendix B). Restoration planning is the mechanism to be used by the city to achieve a net gain in ecological functions throughout each watershed. Restoration planning is different than regulatory controls because the latter are developed to maintain “no net loss” of ecological function within shorelines. Regulatory controls can include, but are not limited to, a sequence of mitigation measures and development of setbacks or buffer specifications. The restoration plan is a comprehensive set of restoration objectives and opportunities identified through already completed planning efforts or on a project-by-project basis. Examples include the City of Bellingham Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan (2005), the 1995 Whatcom Creek Trail Master Plan, the Greenways Levies and Programs, and work already identified and completed by the Washington Conservation Crew. While individual project proposals may not achieve full restoration of shoreline areas, restoration planning is intended to identify and prioritize restoration objectives and specify individual restoration projects that can be completed when resources become available.

The city of Bellingham is fortunate that substantial restoration planning efforts have been put forth over the last five to seven years. The Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot Project Habitat Documentation Report, the Waterfront Futures Group (WFG) Framework Plan, the Whatcom Creek Environmental Assessment and Restoration Plan (for the pipeline fire), and the environmental resources division of the city’s public works department (to name only a few) all make specific restoration opportunity recommendations. The SMP restoration plan is not intended to take the place of or prioritize itself over these or other already established restoration plans that the city has initiated or completed.

Initial Procedures

If you intend to develop or use lands adjacent to a shoreline of the state as defined in Chapter 22.03 BMC, consult first with the planning department to determine if you need a shoreline permit; they will also tell you about other necessary government approvals.

To find out if your proposal is permitted by the program, first determine which shoreline environment designation applies to your site. Then check to see if the environment designation policies and regulations in Chapter 22.03 BMC allow the proposed use. Your proposal may be permitted outright, allowed only as a conditional use, or prohibited. It may also require a variance.

Although your proposal may be permitted by program regulations or even exempt from specific permit requirements, all proposals must comply with all relevant policies and regulations of the entire program as well as the general purpose and intent of the SMP.

For development and uses allowed under this program, the city must find that the proposal is generally consistent with the applicable policies and regulations, unless a variance is to be granted. When your proposal requires an approval or statement of exemption, submit the proper application to the city’s permit center. Processing of your application will vary depending on its size, value, and features. Contact the planning and community development department at (360) 676-6982 for additional information. [Ord. 2013-02-005 § 2 (Exh. 1)].


The shorelines of Bellingham have great social, ecological, recreational, cultural, economic and aesthetic value. Bellingham’s lake, river, and near-shore areas provide citizens with clean water; deep-water port and industrial sites; habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife including salmon, shellfish, forage fish, and waterfowl; archaeological and historical sites; open space; and areas for boating, fishing, and other forms of recreation. In many cases, Bellingham’s shoreline resources are limited and irreplaceable. Use and development of shoreline areas must be carefully planned and regulated to ensure that these values are maintained over time.

The city of Bellingham shoreline master program (SMP or the program) is a result of Washington State legislation requiring all jurisdictions to adequately manage and protect shorelines of the state. Washington’s Shoreline Management Act (SMA or Act) (Chapter 90.48 RCW) was passed by the Legislature in 1971 and adopted by the public in a 1972 referendum. The goal of the SMA is “to prevent the inherent harm of uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.” The Act specifically states:

It is the policy of the State to provide for the management of the shorelines of the State by planning for and fostering all reasonable and appropriate uses. This policy is designed to insure the development of these shorelines in a manner, which, while allowing for limited reduction of rights of the public in the navigable waters, will promote and enhance the public interest. This policy contemplates protecting against adverse effects to the public health, the land and its vegetation and wildlife, and the waters of the State and their aquatic life, while protecting generally public rights of navigation and corollary rights incidental thereto.

The city of Bellingham prepared this SMP to meet the requirements of the Washington State SMA. This SMP provides goals, policies, and regulations for shoreline use and protection and establishes a permit system for administering the program. The goals, policies, and regulations contained herein are tailored to the specific geographic, economic, and environmental needs of the city of Bellingham.

The Shoreline Management Act and its implementing legislation (Chapter 173-26 WAC or Shoreline Guidelines) establish a broad policy giving preference to shoreline uses that:

Depend on proximity to the shoreline (“water-dependent uses”);

Protect biological and ecological resources, water quality and the natural environment; and

Preserve and enhance public access or increase recreational opportunities for the public along shorelines.

The overall goal of this SMP is to achieve rational, balanced, and responsible use of our irreplaceable shorelines. In implementing this program, the public’s opportunity to enjoy the physical and aesthetic qualities of shorelines of the state shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible. Implementing the SMP must protect the ecological function of shorelines and, at a minimum, achieve a “no net loss” of ecological function. Single-family residences; ports; shoreline recreational uses (including but not limited to parks, marinas, piers, and other improvements); water-dependent industrial and commercial developments; and other developments that depend on a shoreline location shall be given priority. Permitted shoreline uses shall be designed and conducted to minimize damage to the ecology of the shoreline and/or interference with the public’s use of the water and, where consistent with public access planning, provide opportunities for the general public to have access to the shorelines.

The city of Bellingham last updated its SMP in 1989. Since that time, there have been substantial changes in the way shorelines are regulated. New scientific data and research methods have improved our understanding of shoreline ecological functions and their value in terms of fish and wildlife, water quality and human health. This information also helps us understand how development in these sensitive areas impacts these functions and values. The new Shoreline Guidelines, upon which this SMP is based, reflect this improved understanding and place a priority on protection and restoration of shoreline ecological functions. [Ord. 2013-02-005 § 2 (Exh. 1)].


    Please refer to Chapter 22.04 BMC for the precise definition of “shorelines of statewide significance.”


    A CD copy of the SCI can be purchased from the planning department for $2.00.