Can You Build on Forestry Land in Washington State?

Deciding if you can build on forestry land in Washington state involves navigating a complex set of laws, regulations, and land use restrictions. This comprehensive guide breaks down everything you need to know when considering construction on timberland properties.

Why Building on Forestry Land is Restricted

The state of Washington has over 22 million acres of forested land which provides great economic and environmental benefits. Forestry operations contribute over $30 billion to the state’s economy annually and forests help clean our air and water.

To conserve these working forests and prevent land use conflicts, construction activities are strictly regulated under the Forest Practices Act. The law aims to maintain a viable timber industry while also protecting wildlife habitat, water quality, and other public resources.

Key Factors That Determine If You Can Build

You need to investigate several key factors to determine if building is possible on a parcel of forestry land:

1. Zoning and Land Use Rules

Counties and cities have specific zoning codes and land use rules which dictate what you can build. Forestry zones typically limit residential construction but may allow buildings like barns or workshops.

2. Development Regulations and Permitting

Development on forestland must comply with state regulations like the Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act. Extensive permitting from multiple agencies is usually required.

3. Parcel Size and Road Access Requirements

In some cases, parcels below a certain acreage (e.g. 20 acres) cannot be used for forestry and may allow construction. Legal road access must also exist.

4. Presence of Environmentally Sensitive Areas

If wetlands, steep slopes, or other protected areas are present, development may be prohibited or face substantial restrictions.

5. Conversion of Forestland to Other Uses

You may be able to build if you can convert the parcel to an urban use or successfully rezone the land, but this is very difficult.

Carefully investigating these key factors will determine if building is possible or allowable under current land use laws. Consulting with specialized attorneys can also help analyze your specific situation.

Steps to Evaluate Buildability of Forestry Land

Follow these steps when assessing options for construction on timberland:

Step 1: Verify Underlying Zoning and Land Use Rules

  • Check county or city zoning maps to identify zoning classification and allowed uses
  • Make sure forestry use is currently permitted – residential buildings may be prohibited
  • Identify any overlay districts like agricultural or mineral resource lands

Step 2: Research Permitting Requirements and Development Regulations

  • Development must comply with state/local laws like the Growth Management Act
  • Multi-agency permits and approvals will be required for construction
  • Environmental impact studies may be mandated

Step 3: Evaluate Key Property Attributes

  • Confirm parcel size – smaller plots may not qualify as forestry land
  • Ensure there is established legal access to the site
  • Assess terrain for buildable area free of environmentally sensitive areas
  • Consider proximity to other lands in forestry use

Step 4: Explore Land Use Change and Rezoning Options

  • Applying for a land use or zoning reclassification is very difficult but may enable building
  • Demonstrate the land has greater value converted to other uses
  • Be prepared to justify loss of forestry land and pay mitigation fees
  • Hire an attorney experienced with rezoning timberland

Step 5: Submit Permit Applications and Secure Approvals

  • Apply for required permits like clearing & grading, SEPA, shoreline, hydraulic project permits
  • Complete all project conditions for approved building plans and traffic mitigation
  • Post bonds, pay impact fees, record easements prior to receiving final permits

Key Laws and Regulations Restricting Building on Forestry Land

It is vital to understand the web of laws that limit construction on designated forest properties:

Washington State Forest Practices Act – Requires timber harvest permits and forest management plans. Building must not hinder forestry operations.

Growth Management Act – Strict urban growth boundaries protect resource lands. Building must meet growth projections.

Shoreline Management Act – Special permits needed in shoreline zones like riparian areas. Site plans must minimize environmental impact.

Hydraulic Code Rules – Govern activities like grading near waterbodies. Must mitigate runoff and erosion effects.

Critical Areas Ordinances – Local rules protecting wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, and other sensitive ecosystems.

SEPA Review – State Environmental Policy Act mandates environmental impact assessment.

Complying with these laws is mandatory and will dictate if projects can proceed. Local municipal codes may impose additional building restrictions on forestry zones.

Challenges with Constructing on Timberland

Trying to build on land designated as working forests involves many potential pitfalls:

Land Use Conflicts – Forestry uses may impact residents. Noise, log truck traffic, hours of operation, visual aesthetics.

Infrastructure Deficiencies – Remote locations lack water systems, sewer access, electricity, and roads suitable for residential access.

Steep Terrain – Rugged slopes often characterize timberlands. Limited space for building foundations and access roads.

Environmental Constraints – Development restrictions to protect streams, wetlands, watersheds, and endangered species habitat.

Permitting Difficulties – Securing approvals from multiple agencies for zoning, land use, environmental laws. Major legal and engineering expenses.

Limited Resale Value – Restrictions on development curtail interest from potential buyers and financing options.

Overcoming these barriers involves major time commitments, construction costs premiums, and approval uncertainty.

When Building on Timberland is Possible

While generally prohibited under Washington forestry laws, construction may be possible if certain conditions are met:

Parcel Size Thresholds – Counties have minimum lot sizes that qualify for various uses. Below thresholds may allow building.

Prior Improved Sites – Grandfathered buildings like existing homes or hunting cabins may be expanded or rebuilt.

Non-Residential Structures – Barns, workshops, storage sheds may be allowed if zoning codes permit and environmental impacts are mitigated.

Reclassification of Lands – Successful application to rezone parcel usage, like converting to rural residential use. Extremely difficult.

Conditional Use Permits – Some jurisdictions may allow buildings deemed compatible if stringent permit requirements are satisfied.

Non-Conforming Use Status – Buildings that are older than zoning laws may be “grandfathered in” with acceptable documentation.

Natural Disasters – Counties may approve temporary housing to replace homes destroyed by events like fires or floods.

Tips for Purchasing Forestry Land for Construction

If you plan to buy timberland with the intent to build, consider these tips:

  • Retain legal counsel experienced with forestry land use laws
  • Get written pre-approval for construction plans from permitting agencies
  • Focus search on parcels below 20 acres that may not qualify as working forest
  • Ensure title report confirms legal access to the site
  • Have civil engineer assess terrain and identify homesite with least environmental impact
  • Ask counties if there are pending updates to forestry zoning laws
  • Calculate costs for extending infrastructure like power, water, septic
  • Hire experts to survey for streams, wetlands and other protected areas

Common Questions about Building on Timberland

Can I build a house on land zoned for forestry?

Typically not. Forest zones prohibit residential buildings to reserve land for timber operations. Accessory structures may be allowed if specific regulations are met.

What about buying forestland and rezoning to allow housing?

Rezoning forestry land is extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed. You must demonstrate greater public benefit with the zone change than retaining timber uses.

Can I build a cabin as a recreational use on timberland?

Some counties do allow small cabins for temporary occupancy in forestry zones. Stringent restrictions apply regarding size, use, permitting and environmental rules.

Do minimum parcel sizes for forestry land exist?

Some counties have thresholds where parcels below certain acreage will not qualify as designated forestland. This may allow constructing a residence when zoning codes permit.

Who decides if building is allowed on forestry lands?

Multiple agencies at state and local levels implement laws governing construction on working forests. Zoning boards ultimately decide land use and permitting appeals.


Constructing buildings on land reserved for forestry poses legal complexities most owners are unable to navigate successfully. While possible in rare cases, residential development is generally prohibited on private working forests in Washington state.

Carefully researching all applicable zoning laws, land use regulations, and permitting requirements is necessary before considering any construction on timberland properties. Even then, approval odds for building remain very low under most circumstances.

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