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Illegal Grading

San Diego has a rich heritage of maintaining and preserving environmentally sensitive lands. All development near or within environmentally sensitive land is carefully coordinated with input from a variety of interest groups to insure that protected habitats are not unnecessarily disturbed. Regulations are in place to ensure adequate fire protection buffers for structures. Illegal grading is considered to be a serious threat to San Diego's precious environmentally sensitive lands and is subject to substantial penalties. Information specific to what types of grading are illegal can be found in San Diego Municipal Code Section 129.0601 (PDF).

Typical grading violations occur when private property owners or developers begin clearing vegetation on slopes, have large equipment on site that is altering the landform and/or impacting existing drainage conditions, and/or when soil is being deposited or excavated on site.

In general, grading work is:

  • Excavation or fill which results in a slope gradient of 25 percent or greater (4 horizontal feet to 1 vertical foot), and which the depth or height at any point is more than 5 feet measured vertically.
  • Grubbing or clearing (destroying native vegetation by removing or disturbing the root system by any means, including chemical) is prohibited on slopes and in environmentally sensitive areas (Environmentally Sensitive Lands), open space easement or City-owned open space. Native vegetation on your property can be pruned. Pruning is the removal of branches and dead or dying wood to reduce the amount of flammable material. For more information on methods for thinning brush for fire protection, please contact San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
  • Altering the drainage pattern on an existing lot, thereby impacting adjacent properties. If you illegally cut into the slope bank on your property or import fill to increase the level portion of your yard which causes dirt to be distributed on an existing slope bank, you are in violation and could be creating an unstable slope on your property. Obtain the grading permit prior to conducting any grading activity.

Fines and Penalties

Illegal grading can result in substantial fines depending on the seriousness of the violations and the perceived intent of the violator. At a minimum, illegal grading is treated as a misdemeanor - punishable with a minimum $1,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail. Serious violations are subject to Civil Penalties that can range up to $2,500 per day to a maximum of $250,000 for an individual property.

Civil Penalties and Fines Collected from Illegal Grading in Fiscal Year 2004:

  • $260,483.75 in Civil Penalties
  • $28,039.44 in Recovered Administrative Costs
  • $21,000.00 to California Department of Fish and Game
  • $25,000.00 to the Archaeological Mitigation Fund
  • $57,500.00 to the Habitat Acquisition Fund

Illegal grading is a serious matter. Please know the rules before you alter the land form on your property, disturb natural vegetation, or disturb the existing drainage pattern. When illegal grading occurs, permits are withheld until the code enforcement action has been concluded.

Who do you call if you believe illegal grading is taking place?

Call the Code Enforcement Division at (619) 236-5500. The Intake Desk will ask if you believe they have a permit or not. If the grading is under active permit, call Engineering and Capital Projects, Field Engineering Division, at 1-858-627-3297. You may also visit the Development Services Department's Grading web page for additional information.