Subdividing Real Estate: What is a “plat”?

Across the country, the housing industry is booming, but the market in Tacoma and Seattle is especially hot. Many huge national and international entities call Seattle and Tacoma home. Our greatest regional employers include: Boeing, CHI Franciscan, Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Microsoft, University of Washington, Amazon, Providence Health & Services, Starbucks, and Weyerhaeuser. Their rapid expansion has created an unprecedented demand for housing throughout the south Puget Sound area, and especially in King and Pierce counties.

Given the huge demand, the development of residential subdivisions has ramped up in Tacoma and the surrounding smaller cities and unincorporated areas. Many newly constructed homes sell before the developments are even completed. In this climate, builders may think significant profits are a near certainty.

Builders may, however, suffer setbacks and obstacles to finalizing their new subdivisions. These setbacks can sometimes be technical—such as problems with a sub-contractor or a supplier—but oftentimes the most expensive and difficult setbacks are imposed by the land use and planning departments of local municipalities.

If you have plans for a new subdivision, a skilled real estate attorney can guide you through the process of obtaining all of the necessary permits to keep your project on track. If a municipality denied you any necessary permits, we can assist you in the appeal.

Plat Creation

To design a successful subdivision, developers must carefully plan the division of the subject property to maximize the utility and value of their property, while simultaneously complying with complicated municipal codes and preexisting easements on their property. To maximize value, most builders want to build as many units as possible on their lots. However, they may be required by law to set aside spaces for small parks, grassy medians, and other features. They may also have to account for utility easements for the water, sewers, gas, and electricity that will serve the finished lots. They may have to make provisions for access to public roads for transportation, and access roads to drainfields or wells. They may also have to mitigate runoff, or engage in flood protection measures.

Beyond the above legal considerations, builders may need to plan around encumbrances and preexisting easements, covenants, or restrictions. These too can take many different forms.

And the above concerns are just the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, a plat has to be more than just aesthetically pleasing and efficient; it must also strictly conform to many regulatory requirements and pre-existing conditions that can vary from project to project.

Having the right engineering firm design your subdivision is essential to ensure that the design is both efficient, and will not present unnecessary obstacles during the permitting process. We have close professional relationships with excellent engineering firms that we work with daily. We typically work with, and double-check the engineering firm to make sure your plans allow you to maximize value under the current regulations.

Applying for Your Permits

Obviously, permits are necessary to move forward with any subdivision project. You must present your plat plans to Pierce County Planning and Public Works, which will review your plat carefully to determine if there are any reasons it should not proceed. You will first have to obtain preliminary plat approval and then final plat approval before you can divide your land into multiple lots. The basic steps of the application process typically include the following:

  1. Master applications
  2. State Environmental Policy Act environmental checklists (SEPA)
  3. Joint Aquatic Resources Permit Application (JARPA)
  4. Land surveys
  5. Required findings
  6. Title reports
  7. Health Department applications
  8. Water availability letters
  9. Formal preliminary plat site plans
  10. Lot closure calculations

These permit applications involve many different agencies, all of which check whether your subdivision meets zoning, health, and safety standards in Tacoma or whatever jurisdiction your development happens to be in. You will need to make many adjustments to your preliminary plat before you can obtain approval of it, proceed to the actual construction, or obtain final plat approval. The more assistance you have from a lawyer with experience obtaining plat approvals, the more efficiently the process will usually go.

Appealing a Permit Denial

If the City of Tacoma fails to grant you the permits you need, you have the right to file an administrative appeal with the Office of the Hearing Examiner for Tacoma. This complicated process has many deadlines and procedural rules, so it is in your best interest to hire a law firm with specific experience going before the hearings examiner to appeal a permit decision.

First, a Notice of Appeal must be filed within the required time period. In some situations, you may have only a few days to appeal, so it’s important that you seek legal help immediately upon becoming aware of the need for an appeal. Filing an improper or delayed Notice of Appeal will likely result in the dismissal of your attempted appeal before you ever get a hearing.

We can engage in prehearing settlement conferences to try to defend your project directly to the City of Tacoma in an attempt to avoid a hearing. If that is not possible, we will prepare expert witnesses to attest to the soundness of your subdivision platting and we can challenge the testimony of the City’s witnesses who oppose approval of your applications. The hearing examiner will then make a decision as to whether the City wrongfully denied your permits. If the examiner finds in favor of the City, you may appeal the decision to Washington State Superior Court.

What Happens Once You Receive Your Permits?

Once you receive approval for your plat, your next step is to develop your new subdivision. This requires many different players: contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, lenders, real estate brokers, purchasers, and more. The relationships between these various parties is governed by a complex network of contracts. Among other things, these contracts allocate responsibility and liability between parties. If something goes seriously wrong with the project, a few words here or there can have costly unintended consequences.

To best protect your interests, it is usually wise to hire a skilled real estate attorney with experience in construction development to draft, negotiate, and review all relevant contracts.

Share the Post:

Table of contents for this article


Need a good lawyer?

Gonzo Great-Whatever

With extensive experience in landlord-tenant law, property disputes, and construction law, Gonzo is our go-to lawyer in King and Pierce Counties. Contact Gonzo for help.

Related Posts

Keep an eye on the bureaucrats. Join our email list

No spam. We only send emails when there’s a real estate law emergency.