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.

SeekingApproval_1We’ve begun digging into newly released data from the city’s permitting system to get a better sense of one of local government’s most basic responsibilities.

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When it comes to the city’s more complicated permits, it took about nine months to get a project approved in 2013, the most recent year with enough available data to draw a conclusion.

That’s faster than in any of the last 10 years, the time for which records are available.

That doesn’t mean nine months is fast, in the grand scheme of things. Nor is it slow, necessarily. We’d need additional data from the rest of the state to draw that conclusion.

But it is speeding up.

The chart above shows the typical experience for getting a discretionary permit1, a broad category that includes all requests that require community review, a higher level of technical or environmental review and eventually sign-off from a city official, which can go as high as the City Council.

Not pictured is another class of permits, which represent a huge majority of the work Development Services takes care of.

Most permits the city issues are what we’ll call “over-the-counter permits.” Those come into play when you’re already entitled to build a certain thing on a piece of property, or use the property in a certain way. You just need to demonstrate that your plans comply with those requirements, and have reviewers make sure your plans satisfy certain health and safety code requirements. Prove that and voila, you get a permit.

The permits displayed above, though, are for projects that are either expressly against existing restrictions, or are big and complicated enough that they always need a more thorough review process. It’s called discretionary review.

“On the discretionary side, that’s where we have the chance to really affect change, and where we end up hearing complaints if things get too long,” said David Graham, the city’s deputy chief operating officer in charge of development.

One Paseo, the recently approved megadevelopment in Carmel Valley that will include 600 homes and boatloads of stores, offices and outdoor space? Yeah, that was a discretionary permit. The City Council approved it last week after six years of debate.

Projects requiring discretionary permits aren’t always so big, though. In the coastal communities, you need a discretionary permit to expand a single-family home.

Because of the range of projects that fall under the discretionary umbrella, Jeff Barfield, planning manager for developer RBF Consulting, said determining a typical review time isn’t all that helpful.

“It’s like asking: How much does a car cost?” he said.

But looking at the year-to-year change in approval times is more like asking: How much has a typical household spent on a car over the years?

Developers are getting discretionary permits faster now than they have in the last 10 years. The decline from the peak of the recession — when review times were by far the longest — is extreme, at 43 percent. The city’s improvement is far more modest, though, compared with before the recession, a 14 percent decline.

We’ve also analyzed each type of discretionary permit, and they show the same broad trend: Approval times have fallen dramatically since the recession and are now in line with where they were before it, or slightly better.

There’s no mistaking the trend, even it doesn’t feel like much has changed to developers.

“It feels like they’re keeping it from getting worse,” Barfield said. “But no, it doesn’t feel like things are getting much better.”

Environmental lawyer Cory Briggs, who has often sued the city for inadequate review of projects, meanwhile, doesn’t believe faster review times is necessarily a great achievement, especially because good projects can withstand the delay.

“One person’s delay is another person’s thoughtful and methodical review,” Briggs said. “Developers often think delay is bad, but the community might think it’s thoughtful.”

In either case, the next logical question is what’s driving the overall decline in approval time — and what isn’t. That’s where we’ll pick up.

Damon Crockett provided data analysis for this story.

  1. The middle line is the median approval time for all permits. As in, half the permits took more time and half took less. For the bottom line, 60 percent of permits took longer. And for the top line, 40 percent of permits took longer. Basically, the three lines together show a range of ordinary approval times for a discretionary permit. (For a more in-depth look at how different types of discretionary permits fared over the last 10 years, click here.)

    Since some approval times can take multiple years, not all of the permits in recent years have been completed, and some of them never will be, either because the developer abandons the project or the city rejects it. We used the approval times from 2004 through 2008 to assign a probability that outstanding permits will eventually be approved, and used that to project the total number of approvals for a given year.

    We can’t project how many days an outstanding project will take, but we do know the minimum days it will take, based on our projection of how many will eventually be approved. That allows us to calculate the percentiles shown above — because we know that once approved it will lie above our target percentiles.

This article relates to: Land Use, Must Reads, 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.

Robert Miller
Robert Miller

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?

Frank Landis
Frank Landis subscriber

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.

My 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.

I've also 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 document

tomp subscriber

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.

Andrew Keatts
Andrew Keatts author

@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.

Felix Tinkov
Felix Tinkov subscribermember

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.

Andrew Keatts
Andrew Keatts author

@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.