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. 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.
Note that discretionary projects in the Downtown Community Plan area are not managed by the Development Services Department. For projects within this area, please contact Civic San Diego, a City-owned, non-profit organization that guides development in the urban core.
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:
- 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 existing uses or expansions of existing uses that could have limited impacts on the surrounding properties.
- Site Development Permit Procedures
Review process for proposed development that, because of its site, location, size or some other characteristic may have significant impacts on resources or on the surrounding area, even if developed in conformance with all regulations.
- Coastal Development Permit Procedures
Review process for coastal development that 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
Review process for development that allows an applicant to request greater flexibility from the strict application of the regulations than would be allowed through a deviation process.
- Conditional Use Permit Procedures
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 special 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.
- Public Right-of-Way Use Permit Procedures
The purpose of these procedures is to establish the process for approval of encroachments in the public right-of-way when the applicant is not the recorded owner of the property on which the proposed encroachment will be located.
- 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 through corresponding assurances by the developers.
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 the public health, safety and welfare; and
- The proposed development will comply with the regulations of the Land Development Code, including any allowable deviations.
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.
- Project Submittal Manual - Section 4 Addresses requirements for most discretionary permit mapping actions.
- 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 rights-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 items from Section 6 are frequently processed with items from Section 4.
Publications and Resources: