Discretionary permits and processes are required when development may have impacts on the surrounding area due to a proposed use, design feature or project location, as defined in the San Diego Municipal Code. Before applying for a discretionary permit or review, applicants can request a Preliminary Review.
Discretionary approvals require the exercise of judgment and deliberation by a decision-maker, such as granting a Conditional Use Permit to an airport or a marijuana outlet. In contrast, ministerial approvals are those which 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.
Once a discretionary approval is granted and a discretionary permit is issued and recorded, a development is considered "entitled," and may then enter the construction phase to process any required ministerial approvals associated with the project, including building permits, grading permits, right-of-way permits and final maps.
Discretionary permits may contain conditions that the applicant is required to fulfill before or during construction and operation of the proposed use. Among others, these include the operating hours, need to install/repair sidewalks and provide traffic signals.
Discretionary permits may be required for proposed use, location, and/or project characteristics, and it is not possible to account for every possibility on this web page. Therefore, we strongly recommend researching discretionary permit types and requirements in consultation with staff by visiting Development and Permit Information (DPI) at Development Services, calling for info at 619-446-5000, and/or working with an industry professional to determine what permits may be required. Submitting without all required documentation can result in delays.
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 a 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, except for the Downtown Planned District, which can be found in Chapter 10.
Specific discretionary permits/processes include:
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:
Regardless of decision process, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of discretionary actions and to 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.
These fees are for discretionary project application purposes only. Other fees --some of which Development Services Department does not set and may not collect directly-- may be required at other points in the development process. Among others, these include CEQA filing fees, school fees, development impact fees and building permit fees.