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.
It seemed like such a simple question.
How long does it take to get a permit from the city of San Diego?
The answer, though, isn’t simple. And despite developers bemoaning the bureaucratic headache of dealing with City Hall, and political candidates promising to “streamline permitting,” it’s an answer that’s never been readily available.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
I am trying to build on my half acre city lot. My lot is vegetation codes 12000 and 11300 (developed or disturbed, no native plants)- suddenly I am declared ESL, environmentally sensitive. Bogwash. Next , while I am <50' height differential and under 25% total gradient- I have "Steep Hillsides"- all of which requires a Neighborhood use permit, biologists and engineers. I don't even fall close to within ESL environmentally sensitive. Could someone please tell me what is wrong with these people at the City? Can't they read or did they graduate from high school?
It's worth checking on how well the permits are processed as well. A few years ago, the city consolidated everything in DSD, and at that point the quality of their documents took a nosedive.
example is the Natural Resources Management Plan for Del Mar Mesa.
They issued a draft last year, and it had some interesting mistakes,
such as using the wrong biological resources report (generated within
the city) for the document. I noted the mistake, and they acknowledged
it and said they would fix it. Their fix turned out to be reformatting
the wrong paragraph in strikeout, copying it verbatim (still wrong) and
pasting that as the new text below it. To me that says a) they're not
paying attention to details, and b) the people writing the documents
don't know much if anything about biology. It's too bad. The city has
some good biologists on staff, but I'm not sure DSD wants to listen to
them even when they're trying to help.
noticed that in the last year or so, they've started sending out scans
of documents, rather than pdfs of text documents. This makes it harder
to search for key words, because the documents are images, not text.
They're printing a document out, scanning that print, then making it
public. To me, that says they don't want people using their computers
to search for key terms in documents. Rather, they want to force
everyone to read everything, and this slows down the review process for
public comment. Are they trying to make their documents harder to
comment on, so that fewer problems are caught? The actual outcome is
more annoyed and critical reviewers.
Bottom line is, I'm wondering if they're getting sloppier as a way to speed up permitting through "streamlining." Hopefully that's not the case, because this strategy only works until the city loses a major lawsuit as a result of sloppy permitting practice.
Oh, and by
the way, streamlining is for planes, not for documents. The point of
reviewing the document is that it's better to run print through a
bureaucrat than it is to deal with a preventable emergency in the real
world, and it's cheaper than fighting a screwup in court. Getting
smart, efficient bureaucrats is a better cost-cutting measure than
skimping on bureaucrats and lawyering up to defend the resulting
Can you track what percent of the permit requests end up being denied (or withdrawn) by permit type? First & foremost, I'm curious if the vast majority of conditional use permit applications are eventually approved: that would imply that zoning isn't enforcing planned development as much as it is "rent seeking" by the city: pay (substantial) fees and you are likely to get to do what you want. But also I suspect that your data are durations from only permits that were eventually approved, and I can't tell if the 80th-100th percentiles, for example, are actually permits that were denied.
ps: plot.ly rocks for this kind of presentation; nice, Damon! As you get more familiar with it, you can start posting a wider range of quantiles (or the full data) and letting us pick our own quantiles if we want more or different lines on the graph.
@tomp Thanks, good thinking.
We've already pulled together data on the share of all discretionary permits that are approved in a given year. It ranges between 59 percent and 75 percent. But some of those unfulfilled requests will eventually be approved, while others are rejected. We can definitely run analysis of the share of each type of permit that are denied or withdrawn, and that's a really good idea.
Andy, if you haven't looked at it yet you might consider investigating the cost of obtaining these permits. As I recall, in 2008-9, the City of San Diego acknowledged that a simple Process 2 (staff-level decision) Neighborhood Use Permit runs about $33,000 just for the Development Services staff review time. This figure did not include permit fees or private consultant/attorney/engineering costs.
That sum may be a drop in the bucket for a large development, but given that NUPs might be sought by homeowners for mundane things like building a garage or adding a bedroom, the sticker shock is extraordinary. It is made worse when it takes a year or two and the discretionary decision is made to deny the request. There is no way to recover these expenses.
For those that are not aware, the City requires an initial deposit for a variety of discretionary permit applications. It could be $5,000 or more for such a deposit. A high threshold for the average person. The Development Services staff then draw down on this amount, on an hourly basis, to cover their time. Given the number of disciplines which may review any given project, the deposit can dwindle quickly. To move a project forward (or to continue the review process), once depleted the deposit must be replenished by the applicant. There is no limitation on how long the review process may take, or how many times funds will be demanded. I have seen projects which have gone through 20+ review cycles (application submission, staff review, application revision, resubmission, repeat).
The reductions in permitting timelines are a hopeful sign because they imply fewer review cycles. This likely means that costs are coming down a bit as well. But considering where they have been for at least the last 10 years, I suspect the figure is still too high for most folks. The knock on effect being that people perform unpermitted work, the City loses out on permit fees, and more substandard/unsafe projects are developed. No one wins.
Solutions abound, but inertia dictates higher permit associated costs will continue until someone steps in to improve the situation.
@Felix Tinkov Nice comment.
We'll have something later this week that begins to get into your concerns, but I think there's also a lot more we can learn about permitting fees with more analysis of the data set we have. There's a lot in there but we'll get into it.