Introduction to Site Permit Reform
The City identiﬁed the site permit review process as an impediment to the production of housing and the City’s economic recovery. On August 15, 2022, the Permit Center, Planning Department (Planning), and the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) began a project to review the City’s review process for Site Permits to identify ways to reduce processing timelines while ensuring City mandates are met, including life safety. The Permit Center completed a case study analysis of other major jurisdictions in California, reviewing how those jurisdictions conduct entitlement and post-entitlement permitting. Outreach is being conducted to solicit feedback on potential improvements and the speciﬁc initiatives that have been proposed.
A joint hearing was held on Thursday, May 11, 2023, with the San Francisco Building Inspection and Planning Commissions to learn about the Site Permit Reform Project.
Review the Joint Hearing Presentation Slides
Read the Joint Hearing Staff Report
Watch the Special Joint Hearing
Completing the Site Permit review process takes too long, causes confusion to the public for appeals, and does not create the right value for the City.
The permitting process is lengthy and undefined. A Site Permit review is a preliminary review based on high-level drawings, but agency comments are often not aligned to the review (“scope-creep”).
Appeal timelines are misaligned. To appeal a Discretionary Review decision by the Planning Commission, you can appeal the issuance of the Building Permit. It is impossible to plan when this period will start.
Planning Commission review of Building Permits happens before other agencies review the permit, so entitlement decisions are made without the benefit of knowing if issues exist with other codes.
Searching for Solutions
To identify ways to improve the Site Permit process, the Permit Center studied past permit review performance and reviewed how peer jurisdictions in the State review land use permits. No other large jurisdiction processes entitlement permits through a Building Permit process.
- Sacramento has the Site Plan and Design Review process administered by Planning as a precursor to applying for Building Permit. These may be reviewed at a staff level or require a hearing.
- Oakland has tiers of Planning Department applications that serve as precursors to Building Permit, such as Zoning Worksheet (ZW), Design Review Exception (DRX), Small Project Design Review (DS), and Regular Design Review (DR). Each has different approval requirements.
- San Jose has the Site Development Permit as a Planning Department precursor permit to applying for a Building Permit. A single-family-house permit can be used for certain small projects (e.g., additions that are two stories or less with a Floor Area Ratio of 0.45 or less).
- Los Angeles uses ministerial permitting (“as of right”) for a much higher portion of projects. Large projects are required to obtain Site Plan Review approval by Planning prior to applying for a Building Permit (e.g., 50+ unit buildings).
- Long Beach also uses ministerial permitting for more projects and requires Site Plan Review approval for larger ones but has lower thresholds for requiring Site Plan Review approval (e.g., 5+ unit buildings).
- San Diego requires a “Discretionary Permit” for certain projects and project sites. For other projects, review can be ministerial. When a Planning Permit is required, the City has multiple process types that apply which set requirements without needing multiple permit types. Smaller projects can be approved in Process #1 (staff decision), while others require higher processes (such as a Commission approval).
Change #1: Re-creating the Site Permit process as a Planning Department process.
When we reviewed our peer jurisdictions, this was identified as a best practice. The Planning Department taking over the processing of these permits also allows the assigned planner to act as an overall permit coordinator, consolidating comments from other reviewing agencies into one Plan Check Letter. With one city staffer coordinating the review, we can identify issues and inconsistencies as they come up and provide a more coordinated response. Re-framing this process as a Planning Department permit will also help to set clearer expectations of what needs to be reviewed at this stage of permitting.
Change #2: Conducting a fully concurrent plan check prior to project entitlement.
If permits are reviewed by all City agencies concurrently, the overall permitting timeline can be reduced. Applicants would also get a complete picture of City comments at once, so conflicts between agencies can be identified early on. Conducting plan review concurrently also means that the information provided by these agencies will be available for consideration when the Planning Commission is reviewing the project. If there are Building or Fire Code issues with a design, we can have those issues remedied before the entitlement approval (reducing the amount of entitlement modifications needed).
Change #3: Setting clear guidelines of what is (and is not) reviewed under a Site Permit.
The existing Site Permit and Addenda model is intended to allow a project to be reviewed and approved at a high-level first, then follow up with more detailed drawings in Addenda submittals. In practice, this is not consistently applied to the review of permits. Permits are not clearly distinguished between Site and Full Permits, so plan checkers often provide comments that should be reserved for construction level permitting. This extends the overall timeline of review, misaligns appeal periods, and is inconsistent with the general process of design of buildings. Setting clear expectations for what is reviewed will enable applicants and staff to do their work more efficiently and effectively.
Change #4: Providing applicants with a roadmap of post-entitlement permit requirements as part of a Site Permit approval.
Building a project can require approval of multiple permits, but if an applicant misses the right moment to apply for a post-entitlement permit (such as a Building Permit, Street Improvement Permit, or Encroachment Permit), they may be delayed in starting construction. To help applicants to navigate a complicated permitting system, we want to use the fully concurrent plan review stage to set a roadmap on what post-entitlement permits and submittals will be needed. This will ensure that nothing is missed and that needless delays are avoided.
Change #5: Conducting a fully digital review of these permits.
The City is currently working to establish an electronic plan review process. For this project, we want to take it one level deeper to establish a fully digital process using the Planning Department’s existing Accela implementation. An applicant would apply using a web form, coordination of review would occur using Accela review tasks, and all review documents would be stored in accordance with the Sunshine Ordinance. This improves the efficiency of review and improves the transparency of the permitting process to the public.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will this add even more process or bureaucracy?
No. This project is proposing to reduce and consolidate process, not add any new ones. Instead of having two separate intake processes, there will be one. Instead of having two phases of plan check, there will be one, with a planner consolidating all the City comments into one Plan Check Letter.
Will permits get reviewed faster?
Yes. The project will consolidate the duplicative permit intake processes into one intake with Planning. Permits will be reviewed by every City agency concurrently instead of sequentially. Applicants will get one full Plan Check Letter from the City and will not need to respond to multiple cycles of review with different groups of reviewers. Finally, the City will define what is and is not reviewed under a Site Permit, so applicants know what they need to address to get their permit and City reviewers understand what they really need to be reviewing.
With these changes, we expect the project will reduce the overall time to get a permit significantly.
Is the City’s review becoming less stringent?
No. The City’s overall review process will be maintained. However, for Site Permits, we will make sure that comments to applicants are in-line with the stage of design that the projects are in. Highly specific details like plumbing or electrical plans will be reviewed when fully detailed construction plans are ready. This is the intent of Site Permits today but is not how they’ve been processed in practice.
Will this change how appeals are handled?
No. Appeal options will stay the same. Today, someone can appeal the the issuance of a Site Permit but cannot appeal any Addenda to that Site Permit. This will not change.
Are fees going to change?
Fees will stay the same, but you’ll pay your Planning Department review fees upfront when applying for a permit. Nothing will change about impact fees, which would still be due when you get a construction permit.
Could we do this without legislation?
City staff reviewed multiple approaches to improving the Site Permit process, including what could be achieved without any legislation. We want to have the assigned planner manage the project review and respond to questions from both the applicant and the public. Without transferring the processing of these applications, implementing this would have far less success.
From our case study of peer jurisdictions, we found that only San Francisco uses Building Permits for these types of reviews (which result in a permit that does not let you build anything). In every other jurisdiction, Planning Departments lead on processing of preliminary, conceptual development review.
How does this fix anything if construction permitting and financing issues are not fixed?
This project is focused on the Site Permit process. The Building Permit review processes will be reviewed and improved in a separate effort. There are many issues facing the development community today, including financing. If anything about the Site Permit process impacts these factors, we welcome your ideas for improvement.