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Residential Construction - Understanding Planning Department Review Process

Updated on July 18, 2011

Any home addition/remodeling project that will change the footprint or the exterior appearance of your house will most likely require a Planning Department review. Most local governments have a Planning Department that ensures your construction meets their zoning code. When reviewing the zoning code, be sure to confirm the following with the Planning Department:

  • Minimum lot size. Some jurisdictions have minimum lot size requirement. If a property is too small, you cannot build on it. There is usually a grandfather clause that would go with this requirement.
  • Setbacks, which are the distances from your building to the property lines at the front, rear, or sides. Please keep in mind that the fence is not a guaranteed landmark of your property line. A professional survey will be able to tell you exactly where your property line is. If there is a discrepancy between the property line and the fence, it's better to resolve w/ your neighbors before you invest too much into the project.
  • Lot coverage, The percent of property that you can build. The idea is to maintain open space/greenery. You might have heard of the term, FAR, floor area ratio. This is the ratio of total floor area to the lot. If you have a multi-story building, you'd need to add up all the floors and divide that by the lot area. FAR typically applies to non-residential buildings. Please check with your local government.
  • Maximum building height. Even if the building code allows you to build a 50' tall building, the zoning code may not. Very often, the zoning code will measure building height differently than the building code. Remember, the most stringent rule will apply. Also find out how the height of the building is measured. You'd be surprised on how many ways you can measured a building's height, particularly on a sloped site.

If the project is small, either based on square footage or construction cost, you can typically obtain planning approval through “staff review”. Staff is the local government's planner. This can often be done through an appointment or over-the-counter drop-in meeting. You might need to come back a few times to address all of their concerns. There is no guarantee that you'd get the same planner each time.

If the project crosses over the “staff review” threshold due to size or cost, then you might need to present your project to a public hearing in front of the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission. In this case, you will work with a specific Planner who will guide you through the process. You will need to submit the documents a bit earlier to allow time for the Planner to review your project and make recommendations to the Board. The recommendations that the Planner will make is typically referred to as the “staff report”. Some governments have a Design Review Board (sometimes called Architecture Review Board) that review the design of the project, some don't have a Design Review Board, so the project will go to the Planning Commission. Some governments will actually require both. Check with your Planner. If your project needs to go through a public hearing, it is prudent to obtain your neighbors' support before hand. The last thing you want are angry neighbors showing up at the finally hearing and trashing your project. Sometimes the Planning Department will require a pre-hearing, or a study session. This means that you present the project to the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission in a meet-and-greet session. The board members/commissioners and the neighbors can voice their concerns. But no decisions will be rendered during this meeting. You can then go back, address their concerns, and come back with an increased chance of approval.

There is no limit on how many times you will be required to present to the Board until the Board either rejects or approves your project. Sometimes, the Board will simply postpone a decision until you have addressed most of their concerns. If the Board feels like your latest presentation addresses most of their concerns with a few outstanding items, they will approve the project with “conditions of approval”, which is a list of items that you'd need to comply with before obtaining either a building permit or final occupancy certificate. If the Board rejects the project, you can appeal based on a set of appeal process. This varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Please check with your Planner.

Once you have obtained Planning Department approval, you can now ask your design professional to prepare documents for the Building Permit.


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    • tchenruiz profile image

      tchenruiz 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thank you, My SciFi Life. I wish there is something we can do to simplify the process, everywhere.

    • My SciFi Life profile image

      My SciFi Life 6 years ago from London, UK

      Marked as useful. Some good information here and I am sure it will be of benefit to someone. The process is slightly different in the UK - it seems even more convoluted if that can be believed!