As defined in the San Diego Municipal Code, Discretionary Permits and processes are required when developments may impact the surrounding area due to a proposed use, design feature or project location. Before applying for a Discretionary Permit or review, applicants can request a Preliminary Review.
Discretionary approvals require a decision-maker to exercise judgment and deliberation, such as granting a Conditional Use Permit to an airport or a Cannabis Outlet. In contrast, ministerial approvals determine that a request complies with a set of codified standards, such as approving a Building Permit for a house. Discretionary approvals are granted at the discretion of a City decision-maker and may require a public hearing.
The City assigns a Development Project Manager (DPM) to guide each discretionary project through the review and decision-making process. The DPM is a single point of contact that facilitates the processing of the project through the City's review process; however, the DPM is not an advocate for the project itself.
Discretionary permits may be required for the proposed use, location and/or project characteristics, and this webpage may not account for every possibility. Therefore, thoroughly research the discretionary permit types and requirements in consultation with staff and/or an industry professional to determine what permits may be required.
Common reasons for discretionary review include proposals to modify a previously conforming use, development proposing to deviate from zoning requirements, development projects located in Environmentally Sensitive Lands, development involving historical resources, and development located in the Coastal Zone.
A project's zoning may also dictate if discretionary approval is required for a proposed use. Use tables for City-wide base zones are located in Chapter 13, Zones. Planned District zoning can be found in Chapter 15, Planned Districts.
Important: Once a discretionary approval is granted during a public hearing, a discretionary permit is issued and recorded, and the development project is considered "entitled." Then, the project can enter into the construction phase, which will require ministerially approved permits, including building permits, grading permits, right-of-way permits and final maps.
Discretionary permits may contain conditions that the applicant must fulfill before and during the construction completion and operation of the proposed use. These include the operating hours, the need to install/repair sidewalks and provide traffic signals.
A decision-maker may approve or deny a discretionary permit based on issues raised during review, the written record of project documents, and public testimony. Depending on the type of permit, the decision-maker may be City staff, the Hearing Officer, the Planning Commission or the City Council. If multiple discretionary permits are required for a project, they will be decided together by the highest-level decision-maker.
The San Diego Municipal Code contains written findings that must be made to justify the City's decision on a discretionary permit. Required findings vary by permit type and project circumstances. The most common findings are:
- The proposed development will not adversely affect the applicable land use plan.
- The proposed development will not be detrimental to public health, safety and welfare.
- The proposed development will comply with the regulations of the Land Development Code, including any allowable deviations.
Regardless of the decision process, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of discretionary actions and avoid or mitigate the impacts, if feasible. For information on the environmental review process in the City of San Diego, see Chapter 12, Article 8, Divisions 1-3 of the San Diego Municipal Code.
Please refer to the San Diego Municipal Code for specifics regarding the decision process, noticing requirements and other relevant information.
What You Should Know
You will be required to select one of the following project types:
- Cannabis Outlet/Facility, for establishing a Cannabis Outlet/Cannabis Production Facility.
- Downtown, for projects located in downtown San Diego.
- Expedite Program, for projects meeting the eligibility requirements and requesting processing within the Affordable Housing Requirements and Expedite Program.
- Professional Certification, for applicants that have received professional certification from DSD.
- Public Projects, for all public projects originating from City departments.
- Wireless Communication Facilities, for Limited Use Permits and those Wireless Communication Facilities (WCFs) requiring discretionary review.
- Standard, for all other project types.
Depending upon the project scope, you will be asked to select from the following list of discretionary permit types followed by making a selection from a list of Permit Sub-Types. The permit type combined with the permit sub-type selected will generate the specific requirements for your project.
- Coastal Development Permit
- Conditional Use Permit
- Development Agreement
- Easement Vacation
- Emergency Authorization-ESL
- Emergency Authorization-Hist
- Land Use Plan
- Limited Use Permit
- Local Coastal Program Amendment
- Map Waiver
- Neighborhood Development Permit
- Neighborhood Use Permit
- Planned Development Permit
- Public Right of Way Vacation
- Site Development Permit
- Special Permit
- Street Name Change
- Substantial Conformance Review
- Tentative Map
- Vesting Tentative Map
- Zone Code Amendment
- Guide to Project Submittal Process, Section 1 provides a general overview of the submittal process.
- Project Submittal Manual - Section 4 addresses requirements for most types of discretionary permits.
- Project Submittal Manual - Section 5 addresses subdivision approvals (mapping actions) that involve the subdivision or adjustment of real property, the associated design of public improvements and the acquisition and vacation of public right of way and public easements.
- Project Submittal Manual - Section 6 addresses requirements for Land Use Plan amendments, Local Coastal Program amendments, rezonings, and development agreements. Note that Section 6 items are frequently processed with items from Section 4.
- Your project may require a historic review to determine conformance with the historic resources regulations if your project is:
- On a site containing a structure of 45 years or more.
- Designated historic.
- In a historic district.
- Most historic reviews will be required to submit a photographic survey and a building record from the Offices of the County Assessor, Recorder and Tax Collector. Learn more about requesting the building records.
Quicker Processing Opportunities
The Affordable, Infill Housing and Sustainable Buildings Expedite Program provides expedited discretionary and ministerial permit processing for eligible affordable, in-fill housing and sustainable development permits and building projects. Learn more
- Information Bulletin 503 for fees and deposits for discretionary and policy approvals except for Wireless Communication Facilities (WCFs).
- Information Bulletin 536 for fees and deposit requirements for WCFs.
- Other fees, some of which the Development Services Department does not set and may not collect directly, may be required at different points in the development process. These include CEQA filing fees, school fees, development impact fees and building permit fees.
Review the Guide to Apply for a Discretionary Permit.
Read the requirements for PDF file uploads.
- Your documents and plans listed under Submittal Requirements in the "Plan Your Project" section above.
- Project Contacts Information (DS-345)
You will be required to upload all the documents and plans from Step 3 at the time of application. Submitting without all the requirements will result in delays.
- For applications submitted prior to Dec. 20, 2021, consult the OpenDSD User Guide for PTS Projects.
- For applications submitted after Dec. 20, 2021, consult the Guide to Apply for a Discretionary Permit.
Resources for Specific Discretionary Permits/Processes
- Neighborhood Development Permit Procedures
Review process for proposed development that may be desirable but may have some limited physical impacts on the surrounding properties.
- Neighborhood Use Permit Procedures
The purpose of these procedures is to establish a review process for developments that propose new uses, changes to or expansions of existing uses that could have limited impacts on the surrounding properties.
- Site Development Permit Procedures
The review process for proposed development that, because of its site location, size or some other characteristic, may have significant impacts on resources or the surrounding area, even if developed in conformance with all regulations.
- Coastal Development Permit Procedures
The review process for coastal development is consistent with the Local Coastal Program, the California Coastal Act of 1976 (Public Resources Code section 30000, et seq.) and the California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Division 5.5., Chapter 8, Subchapter 2, Article 17.
- Planned Development Permit Procedures
The review process for development allows an applicant to request greater flexibility from the strict application of the regulations than would be permitted through a deviation process.
- Conditional Use Permit Procedures
The review process for the development of uses that may be desirable under appropriate circumstances but are not permitted by right in the applicable zone.
- Variance Procedures
To provide relief for cases in which, because of particular circumstances applicable to the property, including size, shape, topography, location or surroundings, the strict application of the development regulations would deprive the property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under the same land use designation and zone.
- Tentative Maps
Process for approving tentative maps and the associated design and improvement of proposed subdivisions and to implement the provisions of the Subdivision Map Act to provide for the orderly division of land.
- Public Right-of-Way Vacations
The purpose of these procedures is to establish a process for approving applications to vacate a public right-of-way and to supplement the provisions of California Streets and Highways Code Sections 8300 through 8363.
- Easement Abandonments
The purpose of these procedures is to establish the process to abandon public service easements and other easements granted to the public or the City of San Diego and to supplement the provisions of California Streets and Highways Code Sections 8300 through 8363.
- Land Use Plans - Adoption and Amendment Procedures
- Adoption of new land use plans and the privately or publicly initiated amendment of adopted land use plans.
- Development Agreement Procedures
To promote and facilitate orderly and planned growth and development through the provision of certainty in the development approval process by the City and corresponding assurances by the developers.