Until now, there wasn’t any objective understanding of the system by which the city decides where and what can be built around San Diego. Discussion around the system has been entirely anecdotal. But after a sustained push from Voice of San Diego, the city has released records from its permitting system. We’re using the newly released data to get solid answers to basic questions, and see what else we can learn about the city in the process.


The city is issuing discretionary permits faster than it has at any point over the last 10 years.

It took longest to get a permit approved during the height of the recession, the last 10 years of data show.

SeekingApproval_1Approval times have returned to pre-recession levels, and in some cases they’ve slightly improved.

But there’s some variation when it comes to the different types of discretionary permits — permits that require more scrutiny and a sign-off from a city official.

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Plus, some projects need multiple discretionary permits, depending on the proposal.

Here’s a permit-specific look at the data.

Conditional-use permits are used when owners want to use their property in a way that isn’t allowed under existing zoning restrictions. They’re getting approved more quickly than at any point in the last 10 years.

Neighborhood-use permits allow residents to use their property in a new way – like using a home as a bed and breakfast – and include a review process if that new use might have a limited effect on the community. Their review times have tumbled since the recession and are now comparable to their pre-recession lows, though the time they took for approval actually increased 20 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Coastal-development permits are required for any new construction or expansion of an existing building in coastal communities like La Jolla, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Point Loma. These are the most common type of discretionary permit issued in the last 10 years. In 2013 it took about as long to get one as it did in 2006, the shortest review time.

Planned-development permits are used when a developer is asking to do something considerably different than would be allowed by a property’s existing zoning restrictions. The review process for these was faster in 2013 than at any other time in the last 10 years.

Site-development permits are for projects that could have a significant impact on the surrounding area’s resources – either because they’re so large, because of the location or other reasons. They were approved more quickly in 2013 than any other year for which data exists.

Damon Crockett provided data analysis for this story.

    This article relates to: Land Use, Permits

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

    Fred Schnaubelt
    Fred Schnaubelt subscriber

    This is great --- if true.  One wonders if the BIA agrees and also  those developers in limbo for several years.  If these are average or median times it means some projects may still have been waiting for 6 to 12 years.

    Andrew Keatts
    Andrew Keatts author

    @Fred Schnaubelt Yes, there are still some extreme outliers in the data, and in fact those outliers make it really hard to analyze what's happening or make statements about typical experiences. For instance, most of the projects submitted in 2014 haven't even reached their permit-specific median approval time yet, so we couldn't say much at all about the most recent year. 

    Fred Schnaubelt
    Fred Schnaubelt subscriber

    @Andrew Keatts @Fred Schnaubelt Thank you.  I know of one person that's been waiting for a CUP for over 20 years in the city  --- but it seems to be working to his  advantage --- since it was an extension.  It would still be interesting to get the BIA's take on this.  Individuals are afraid to speak  out lest it  takes them even longer.  In the county at least one prominent developer has been trying to get approvals  for  over 12 years (won't allow his name to be  disclosed), and another over 20 years in the county.  Downtown San Diego, I've been told has the fastest approval  rate in the State of California.  Every politician in the county claims to be in favor of more housing while they vote against project after project similar to the golf course controversy in Escondido, while they smile and smile like the villain in Hamlet. They then support tokenism in government provided housing at 2 to 3 times the cost of market rate housing if you read the costs on the media..