Critical Areas


Whatcom County’s Critical Areas are environmentally sensitive natural resources that have been designated for protection and management in accordance with the requirements of the Growth Management Act. Protection and management of these areas is important to the preservation of ecological functions and values of our natural environment, as well as the protection of the public health, safety and welfare of our community.  

The Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) applies to geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas. (Whatcom County Code (WCC): Title 16.16)

For permit applications submitted on or after December 27, 2017 the recent Whatcom County Council approved Critical Area Ordinance will be used for review of these applications.  Approved 2017 Critical Area Ordinance

Please note that the new CAO only pertains to those areas of the County not within the Shoreline jurisdiction of the Shoreline Management Plan (200' inland of Waters of the State). For those areas within the Shoreline jurisdiction, the existing (2005) CAO will still govern until the Department of Ecology approves a limited amendment to the Shoreline Management Plan updating the date of the referenced CAO. This is anticipated to take 3-6 months.


In response to concerns regarding rapid growth occurring in the State of Washington, the Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) in 1990. The Growth Management Act (GMA) required counties and cities to adopt comprehensive land use plans and development regulations to coordinate and manage growth and development, as well as protect the state’s natural resources and critical areas.

After several years of development, study and public input, the Whatcom County Council adopted the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan in May 1997 and the Whatcom County CAO, WCC Chapter 16.16, in October 1997. Under the provisions of the GMA, local jurisdictions must designate and manage regulated critical areas. Development activities within, or adjacent to these critical areas, are required to comply with the provisions of local critical areas ordinances.

Agency Responsibility

The Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS) Department is the primary agency responsible for implementing the Whatcom County CAO.

The provisions of the CAO (PDF) apply to any land use or development within an area that meets the definitions and criteria for critical areas as established in the ordinance. All land use and development permit applications submitted to Whatcom County PDS are reviewed for conformance with the provisions of the CAO.