Researching Historic Land Use and Zoning

This research guide is a work-in-progress, based on our current understanding of a complicated process that has changed over time. It is intended as a starting place for your research, not as the final word on the topic.

Before 1923

In the City's earliest days, certain regulations currently covered in the land use code were developed and presented together with what we now think of as building code regulations (construction materials and practices, etc.) They were adopted by ordinance, generally referred to as the Building Ordinance. Each building ordinance would be passed, and then later amended in its various sections by subsequent ordinances until they were eventually replaced and repealed. These included Ordinance 2833 in 1893; Ordinance 7040 in 1901; Ordinance 17240 in 1907; and Ordinance 31578 in 1913.

Compilations of the Building code were published every two to five years beginning in 1909.  A part of the Seattle Municipal Archives' Code Collection, they are described in Digital Collections and can be reviewed at the City Clerk's Office research room.

These early building ordinances are strongly focused on fire prevention, and divide buildings into "Classes" based on the construction materials and techniques used. They also divide the city into "building districts," but only in order to specify which classes of buildings can be built in which districts.

Ordinances introduced before 1996 are available in the City Clerk's Office on microfiche. You can visit our research room to read them (and, if you bring a flash drive, scan them to PDF), or contact us to request a copy.

1923 to 1957

In 1920, Ordinance 40407 established the Seattle Zoning Commission, which was to "make a survey of the City of Seattle with a view of dividing the same into zones or districts, and report to the City Council a zoning or districting ordinance which shall specify the uses to which property in each district may be devoted...." The Seattle Municipal Archives holds the records of the Zoning Commission, which can be consulted in our research room.

The eventual result of the Zoning Commission's work was Ordinance 45382, adopted in 1923 - "An ordinance regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries; regulating and limiting the use of buildings and premises and the heights and size of buildings; providing for yards, courts or other open spaces; establishing districts for the said purposes; defining offenses; prescribing penalties and repealing all ordinances or parts of ordinances in conflict therewith."

Commonly known as the Zoning Ordinance, it was amended many times by subsequent ordinances, generally a section or a few sections at a time, until it was repealed and replaced in 1957. A scanned copy is available in the online database record. The 1923 zoning maps associated with Ordinance 45382 are in the Seattle Municipal Archives' Map Collection; descriptions and images are available online.

The scanned copy of the ordinance is useful because in addition to showing the full original text, each section was annotated by hand with the numbers of all the ordinances that subsequently amended its text. It also contains a chronological list of all the amending ordinances. Ordinances making changes to zoning during this period were generally titled "An ordinance relating to zoning and providing for the rezoning of [Lot(s), Block(s), Plat]," so knowing the legal description of a piece of property will be useful in researching changes to its zoning over time.

Specific information about exactly when certain provisions or changes went into effect will be in the final text section of the ordinance that made the changes. Ordinances introduced before 1996 are available in the City Clerk's Office on microfiche. You can visit our research room to read them (and, if you bring a flash drive, scan them to PDF), or contact us to request a copy.

The Zoning Code as it stood in 1936 appears in Title II, Index 201, of the compiled "General Ordinances of Seattle," a print copy of which is available in our research room.

The Zoning Commission was replaced in 1924 by the City Planning Commission.

The Seattle Municipal Archives' online map database has a set of zoning maps produced by the Seattle Planning Commission in 1947.

1957 to 1980

Ordinance 45382 was repealed in 1957 by Ordinance 86300, the City's next comprehensive Zoning Ordinance:

"An ordinance relating to and regulating land use, providing for residence, business, commercial, manufacturing and industrial zones, and specifying for such zones the permitted uses, regulating the size, bulk and location of structures involving such uses; establishing requirements for offstreet parking and loading facilities; establishing a Board of Adjustment; providing for administration and enforcement, and repealing ordinances 36032 and 45382."

Ordinance 86300, again referred to as the Zoning Ordinance, was also amended many times while it was in effect. The PDF copy of the ordinance in the online database is hand-annotated with the numbers of ordinances that amended the text; however, these annotations only go up to 1973. Any ordinance amending 86300 will mention that in its title, so you can use the search term "86300" in the title field of the online ordinance database to find ordinances that amended it between 1973 and 1980. Ordinances that make changes to zoning are usually titled in this way:  "An ordinance relating to and amending Plat [Plat#], page [Page#] of the Official Zoning Map of the City of Seattle, Ordinance 86300, to rezone certain property in [Plat name]," or know either the plat number the plat name, or the zoning map page of a particular area will be helpful in tracing changes to its zoning over time. Ordinances introduced before 1996 are available in the City Clerk's Office on microfiche. You can visit our research room to read them (and, if you bring a flash drive, scan them to PDF), or contact us to request a copy.

The zoning maps for Ordinance 86300 are part of the microfiche copy of the ordinance, available for review in our research room.

In 1958, the City's general and permanent ordinances were codified and published as the Seattle Municipal Code, and Ordinance 86300, the Zoning Ordinance, was placed in Title 26, the Zoning Code. A copy of the Seattle Municipal Code that incorporates amendments from 1957 to 1973 is available in the City Clerk's Office research room and also online. The zoning regulations continued to be frequently amended, but there was a period during which new ordinances making those amendments referred to the section numbers of Ordinance 86300, not to the section numbers of Title 26 in the compiled Municipal Code.

1958 zoning maps incorporating changes made through Ordinance 90314 (1961) are in item 176 of the Code Collection (Record Series 1801-88) and are searchable and available online in the Seattle Municipal Archives' Map Collection. Descriptions and images of the individual 1973 zoning maps are also available online in the Map Collection.

1980 to 1995

In 1980, the City Council passed Ordinance 109560, which adopted a new codification of the City's general and permanent ordinances as the Seattle Municipal Code.

In this codification, the zoning regulations are in Title 24, "Zoning and Subdivisions," and Title 24 does contain a "crosswalk" between the Ordinance 86300 sections and the Title 24 section numbers.

The 1980 codification is available online, as is a volume containing all the amendments made in 1980, and another of those made in 1981.

In 1982, Ordinance 110381 re-codified many, but not all, of the provisions of Title 24 into a new Title 23, the Land Use Code-it focused primarily on land-use regulations in single-family areas:

"AN ORDINANCE relating to land use; establishing a New Title 23 in the Seattle Municipal Code to be known as the Land Use Code; amending Sections 24.12.010, 24.12.020, 24.24.010, 24.24.040, 24.24.050, 24.30, 100, 24.32.090, 24.60.010, 24.60.140, 24.60.285, 24.60.315, 24.60.365, 24.60.615, 24.60.765, 24.62.010, 24.62.040, 24.68.020, and 24.68.030 of Title 24; adding a new Section 24.14.05 and repealing Chapters 24.10, 24.16, 24.18, 24.20, 24.22, 24.72, 24.84, and Sections 24.06.040, 24.12.040, 24.12.050, 24.12.050, 24.12.060, 24.62.030, 24.62.100, 24.68.080, 24.74.022, 24.74.030, 24.74.030, 24.74.040, and 24.74.130 of Title 24."

When Title 23 was enacted, its section numbers were formatted as, e.g., 23.34.10 instead of 23.34.010, and it was not until the late 1980s that sections in Title 23 were formatted like the rest of the SMC.

Some of the provisions of the original Title 24 remained in place, continuing to be known as the Zoning Code and being amended periodically as before. In 1982, Ordinance 110570 repealed Chapter 24.98 and moved platting requirements for multifamily zones to Title 23.

During the 1980s, requirements for several major zoning types were updated one type at a time. For Commercial zones, the new regulations were put into effect substantially by Ordinance 112777 in 1986, with of course many small changes to individual sections in the ensuing years. The High Rise (later Downtown) zones were first codified in a temporary Chapter 23.49 created by Ordinance 111926, then a permanent 23.49 established by Ordinance 112303.

The best place to start research into code changes during this period is the PDFs of the 1995 SMC on the Historic SMC web page; the legislative histories for each section give a chronology of the changes to its text. If you are researching the history of a specific current code section, it is better to start with Title 23's (or Title 24's) table of contents, identify the relevant topic and move to the section from there, as there is essentially no correspondence between the pre- and post-1995 section numbering.

Ordinances introduced before 1996 are available in the City Clerk's Office on microfiche. You can visit our research room to read them (and, if you bring a flash drive, scan them to PDF), or contact us to request a copy.

1995 and later

The remaining provisions of Title 24 (Zoning Code) were gradually moved to Title 23 (Land Use), until Title 24 was repealed altogether in 1995 by Ordinance 117570:

"Relating to land use, zoning, and housing, repealing the Zoning Code (Seattle Municipal Code Title 24); and amending the Land Use Code (Seattle Municipal Code Title 23) and the Housing and Building Maintenance Code (Seattle Municipal Code Title 22) to delete obsolete references to Title 24, to eliminate provisions regarding transition from Title 24 to Title 23, to add a definition of "green street" and to correct errors and eliminate other obsolete references and definitions."

Amendments to Title 23 provisions can be researched through the legislative histories for each section provided in the print and online versions of the SMC or by searching for mentions of specific section numbers in the title field of the ordinance database. The legislative histories are a more reliable way to search, however-many ordinance titles list the SMC sections affected by the legislation, but not all ordinance titles take this approach.

Ordinances introduced before 1996 are available in the City Clerk's Office on microfiche. You can visit our research room to read them (and, if you bring a flash drive, scan them to PDF), or contact us to request a copy.

"Snapshot" versions of the SMC for the years 1995-2002, and 2004-2009, are available online. These were converted from the source files provided by the codifier of the SMC for updates to the online code.

Other resources

Seattle Municipal Archives holds records that may be of interest to researchers investigating land use code changes.  Some of them include:

Code Collection

The Code Collection is part of the City Documents Collection. Building, zoning, boiler, flammable liquid and mechanical codes are among the codes in the collection.

Legislative Department Records

The Legislative Department Central Reference File (Record Series 4601-02), dating from 1972 to 1991, and the Central Staff Analysts' Working Files (Record Series 4603-01), dating from 1970 to the present, can both be useful for researching changes in legislation relating to code, especially when researching a specific piece of legislation.

The easiest way to search these records is to use the record series number in combination with search words in the finding aid search. The index includes the title of every folder of textual records in the Seattle Municipal Archives. Type the search term in the box and limit the search to archival folders; then click the plus sign to add a second line, type the series number and select Keyword.  For example, a search using "4601-02 land use" brings up all folder titles  in the 4601-02 series that include "land use." Similarly, a search using "4603-01 zoning" reveals that there are several folders on multi-family zoning from 1982 in Box 5.

Also very useful are Councilmember Subject Files, especially after 1986. The best way to use these records is to identify legislation key to the research being done, identify the City Council committee sponsoring the legislation and check to see who was the Chair of that Council committee. A committee database with this information goes back to 1971.

For example, Council Bill 110129, introduced in 1994, proposed accessory dwelling units. The sponsoring committee is listed as Parks, Public Grounds and Recreation with Donaldson as the sponsor. Checking the finding aids to see what records of Councilmember Donaldson are in the Municipal Archives, a list shows both subject files and committee records. The record series number for Donaldson's Subject Files is 4623-02. A search on "4623-02 accessory" in the Subject Files database provides several folders on this topic that could assist the researcher in understanding what happened between the bill's introduction and its being retired in 1996.

Committee Records can also be useful when researching legislative history. The committee database can establish who was chair of a specific committee during the time period of interest; searching in the finding aids will tell you which committee records are in the Archives.  Using the information in the online record for a particular piece of legislation, researchers can identify the name of the committee that considered the legislation and the relevant dates, and then come to the Archives to review the records, checking meetings from the introduction of the Council Bill until it was voted on in Full Council. For example, Council Bill 110129 which proposed accessory dwelling units was sponsored by the Parks, Public Grounds and Recreation Committee. These records are listed in the Guide as Record Series 4623-05. Committee records can contain background material presented to the Committee when a specific piece of legislation was under consideration.

As part of the overhaul of the zoning code during the 1980s, the city went through each major zoning type and updated requirements and boundaries. Four record series reflect this work, including analysis and public input.

Other series

Other records series in the Archives which focus specifically on zoning changes include:

City Planning Commission Zoning Ordinance Records (Record Series 1650-09), 1953-1972
Correspondence to the Planning Commission requesting amendments to the Zoning Ordinance. Includes ordinance amendment drafts, notices of hearings, and copies of Commission minutes.

City Planning Commission Zoning Ordinance Text Amendments (Record Series 1650-17), 1966-1980
Working files for proposed amendments to Seattle's Zoning Ordinance. Includes correspondence, Commission minutes, environmental checklists, staff reports, Commission recommendations, decisions regarding environmental impact, and copies of legislation. Half of the series is arranged by section and paragraph of the ordinance; one-and-a-half boxes contain binders arranged chronologically; and one box includes files relating to enforcement and penalty provisions.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.