Frequently Asked Questions


How do I know if my lot is buildable?

You can contact your local Planning Department to find out what criteria and process is used to determine if you can build on a lot. However, most jurisdictions will require the following 6 criterion before a lot is considered developable:

  • The parcel was legally created;
  • A legal form of access can be provided;
  • An approvable water source (or permit for a water district connection) can be obtained;
  • An approvable domestic sewage disposal system (or permit to connect to a sewer) can be obtained;
  • The lot is not threatened by a geologic hazard that cannot be successfully remedied to protect the proposed structure(s); and
  • Emergency access requirements of the fire district can be met.

Yet, even if a lot is buildable, there can be several other land use issues that affect development sometimes rendering a property “less buildable” than expected. A Pre-Development Site Review will identify those issues for you. For more on that subject, see the next question: “What is a Pre-development Site Review?”

What is a Pre-Development Site Review?

A Pre-Development Site Review (PDSR) is a land use analysis of a property to identify the various  zoning regulations and environmental issues that will affect the development of the property. A PDSR also lists probable agency approvals and application fees required for your project as well as providing a “road map” to guide you on the next steps to take in the obtaining technical reports and permits. PDSRs provide valuable information to property owners, especially if they are completed before architects, designers or other professionals are hired, as PDSR information can save time and money in construction design and planning. Some local agencies provide certain forms of PDSRs. Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning is the only private consulting firm that provides PDSRs in Santa Cruz County. Cypress PDSRs are patterned similar to those prepared by the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, but provide more detail and consultation with property owners. Cypress PDSRs are also prepared for properties within the four cities of Santa Cruz County and some jurisdictions within Monterey County. More information on the “Services” page.

Is a Building Permit required for all structures?

Most cities and counties in California have adopted the California Building Code (CBC), which specifies minimum standards for the construction of buildings. The CBC requires a Building Permit for most structures, but includes a list a structures that are exempt from needing a permit. The most common exempted type of structures are buildings of 120 square feet or less with maximum heights of 10 feet and that contain no plumbing or electrical fixtures. Fences less than 6 feet in height are another example of a structure the CBC exempts from needing a Building Permit. However, each locality can adopt the CBC with certain modifications. You should contact your local Building Department to determine if all the CBC’s exemptions have been adopted. Also ask them which edition of the CBC has been adopted by your City Council or Board of Supervisors. Most public libraries have a copy of the latest edition of the CBC and earlier editions.

Can I convert my garage to a “granny unit”?

This depends upon the local land use planning regulations of the city or county you live in. In the unincorporated portion of Santa Cruz County, a property owner can build a second residential unit in addition to the main house if the parcel is large enough. However, second units , also called accessory dwelling units (ADUs), have size (floor area) and (sometimes) rental restrictions. You should contact your local Planning Department to find out the regulations pertaining to your property, or contact Kim at Cypress Environmental for a consultation.

Can I run a business out of my home?

Most cities and counties allow some form of home occupations to occur within dwellings. Some home occupations, of very limited scope, are permitted as outright permitted uses. Others require a Use Permit because a limited business next door has the potential to impact neighbors. Certain other small commercial uses, like for instance an auto spray painting business, would never be allowed in a residential area due to its impact on the surrounding neighbors. Typically, home occupations are not allowed in residential areas if they would result in an external evidence of business or could affect public health. The details of home occupations differ in each locality. You should contact your local Planning Department to find out the regulations pertaining to your property, or contact Kim at Cypress Environmental for a consultation.

Can I start a business in any area that is zoned for commercial businesses?

All local jurisdictions have more than one zoning for commercial uses. Generically, these zoning districts usually range from small-scale (neighborhood) commercial zoning to large-scale (strip commercial and heavy commercial) zoning. The small-scale commercial zonings are the most limited, with most uses being smaller retail establishments and similar uses. The largest scale commercial allows uses, like automobile dealerships and warehouses, but usually also allow many of the uses of the smaller scale commercial zonings as well.

If you are interested in starting a business on a particular property, you should visit the local Planning Department to find out the zoning regulations for the property and to determine if a Use Permit or other special permit will be required for a new business use on the parcel. Should you desire assistance with this, contact Kim at Cypress Environmental to set up a consultation.

How do I legalize a dwelling (or other building) that was constructed without permits?

Each city and county has their own process for rectifying building and zoning violations; but these processes have similarities. There is usually a Code Enforcement Unit within the local Planning and/or Building Department that can explain their process to you without requiring that you identify the property you are inquiring about. Before inquiring about Building Permit regulations, you should first consult with the agency’s staff to help you determine if the use and location of the building meets the zoning regulations for the property. You will need to clarify two groups of zoning regulations-allowed uses and site standards. Is the building for a use that is allowed in the zoning district where the property is located? What are the required building setbacks, maximum building height and other site standards that are applied to all structures on your property? If the answers to these questions encourage you to continue, you will next need the agency to explain their requirements for submitting an application for a Building Permit.

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development is developing or using land in a way that will not result in the long-term loss of natural resources or harm to the environment. For example, constructing a home on a rural property that preserves the special or significant habitat areas in open space is one form of sustainable development. Constructing an urban home using some recycled building materials and utilizing a passive (or active) solar design to minimize energy use inside the home is another example. Even forestry operations can be done in a sustainably, if trees are harvested in selective manner that doesn’t remove the forest’s function as a natural habitat for wildlife and young native trees are quickly planted and maintained to replace those harvested. As demonstrated by these examples, there can be differing levels of sustainable development.

What is Green Construction?

Green building is a concept of sustainable development. Green construction is building a structure (such as a home) or group of structures (office bldgs. or a subdivision) using renewable resources and/or employing sustainable design. Recycled materials or products manufactured by resource-efficient processes are two examples of green construction materials. The U.S. Green Building Council established a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system in 1998 to determine if a project can be LEED certified as a green project.

LEED certification is based on a checklist that scores new building projects in 5 subject areas: 1) Sustainable Site Use 2) Water Efficiency 3) Materials and Resources 4) Indoor Environmental Quality and 5) Innovation and Design. Renovations of existing buildings are scored in three subject areas. Effective green construction can result in reduced utility cost through using less energy and water in buildings and generate improved health due to better indoor air quality.

What is the difference between a “ministerial permit” and a “discretionary permit”?

A ministerial permit is a permit that will be issued to an applicant if their plans are technically adequate and meet the requirements of codes and standards that pertain to the applicant’s project. A Building Permit for a house or a barn is an example of a ministerial permit. Discretionary permits are those which are approved based on the discretion of some approving body. They usually require public notice and/or a public hearing. If the permit is issued, it will include certain conditions that the permit holder must comply with before the project can be completed. A subdivision or other land division permit is an example of a discretionary permit.

What is an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and should I ever need to read one?

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an EIR to be prepared for any project that may generate a significant impact on the environment. An EIR is an analytical report that describes a proposed project, discusses the impacts or potential impacts that would be generated by implementing the project and recommends ways these impacts can mitigated (mitigation measures). If impacts cannot be mitigated to reduce the impact to a level of insignificance, they are identified as “unavoidable adverse impacts” of the project. In reality, only the larger project proposals have EIRs prepared because most medium and small projects are either exempt from CEQA or are allowed to have a much briefer analysis prepared.

EIRs must be circulated for a 45 day public review period before they are finalized. They are usually the most important and useful source of public information about a proposed plan or development project and are reviewed by individuals and public agencies as a means to ensure their concerns about a project are adequately considered during decision-making deliberations on the project.

CEQA contains voluminous requirements regarding the content of EIRs and the EIR process. Go to the “Governor’s Office of Planning and Research” link on my links page for more information on CEQA and EIRs.

What is the difference between and EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement)?

EIRs are analytical reports required for certain development projects by the California Environmental Quality Act. An EIS is an analytical report required by the National Environmental Quality Act for federal projects. While both types of reports have similarities, EIRs are required for any private or public project which may generate a significant impact on the environment in California which also needs approval from a local, regional or State agency. An EIS is prepared only for large federal governmental projects or large projects that receive federal government funding. For more on EIRs, see the previous question “What is an Environmental Impact Report?”

What is a wetland and why should I preserve it if it’s on my property?

A wetland is generally defined as an environmental habitat created by the interface of land and water, such as a spring, marsh, swamp or estuary. While some biologists classify open water body habitats, like a lake, pond or stream, as a separate habitat, others classify open water bodies also as wetlands. Wetlands, including non-marine open water habitats, are critical to sustaining wildlife as an important drinking water source and breeding area for various animal food sources lower on the food chain. Although wetland vegetation can differ, ranging from bullrushes to alder trees, all wetland vegetation provides important cover allowing many animals to hide from their predators. Wetland vegetation also provides a great place for many birds, reptiles and amphibians to nest and raise their young. In California 90% of wetland habitats have been lost since the arrival of Euroamericans, by large land conversions to support agriculture, urban uses, harbors and other development.

Both the state and federal governments have recognized the important of wetland habitats as the “life blood” for animal species and the fact that they are a diminishing resource by enacting regulations to protect wetlands from conversion. The California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are the two agencies charged with administering these regulations. Go to my links page to visit their websites and find out more about the importance of wetlands and regulations to protect them.

What is a riparian corridor and what is its significance?

 A riparian corridor is a creek, river or other flowing stream and its associated vegetative habitat. The vegetation along the sides of streams are very different from plant species beyond the corridor because riparian vegetation can survive in soils with high hydric conditions. Therefore riparian corridors provide plant species that are rarely found elsewhere. This more specialized type of plant habitat provides important support characteristics for several wildlife species. The presence of water also provides a necessary drinking water source for many wildlife species (mammals, birds) and life source for other species (freshwater fish and amphibians). Please go to the question: “What is a wetland…?” to understand more about this “life blood” habitat for wildlife.

In addition to sustaining wildlife, riparian corridors are important for the conveyance and storage of flood waters. Eradicating stream channels will result in serious flooding impacts unless they are replaced with an engineered drainage system of drains, culverts, detention basins and similar infrastructure. In some instances, it may be necessary to replace small riparian corridors with engineered drainage systems. However, doing so is typically very costly and it removes a natural resource for wildlife and terminates a visual resource and recreational amenity for people.

Are there ways to receive financial benefits for preserving some of my property without selling it to a conservation group?

There are three commonly used land use planning tools that provide some financial benefits available for people who preserve or conserve their property. Agricultural Preserve contracts provide a substantial reduction in property taxes in return to keeping farmland in crop or livestock production. The minimum term of an “Ag. Preserve” contract is 10 years, and it automatically renews each year until the owner terminates the contract. Open Space Easement contracts provide a reduction in property taxes in return for preserving land in open space. An important public benefit must be derived, such as providing an important vista that is cherished by the public or providing a permanent watershed area that feeds a public water supply. “Ag. Preserve” and Open Space Easement contracts are legal agreements between the property owner and the city or county. The entire site area of the parcel(s) is placed under contract.

A conservation easement is a legal restriction placed on all or a portion of the parcel that grants use rights to another entity. The property owner agrees to restrict uses within the easement by granting the authority to control or manage the land to a conservation organization or a local or State government agency. Land Trusts manage many conservation easement lands owned by private individuals across the country. Conservation easements are typically granted to preserve habitat or a scenic resource or to keep land in agricultural use.

Do professional land use planners need to be licensed?

California, like most states, does not require a professional license or certification for planners; however, many are certified by either the American Planning Association (APA) or the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals (ABCEP). The APA provides testing to award successful applicants with an American Institute of Certified Planners registration (AICP). A more rigorous review and testing program is provided by the ABCEP to award successful applicants as Certified Environmental Professionals (CEP). This certification requires a four-tier process, including an examination and oral interview. The CEP certification has 5 categories. Professionals ranging from botanists to air pollution control specialists can become CEPs. Kim Tschantz, owner of Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning, is the only CEP in the Monterey Bay area.

Is there a Certification for Sustainable Planning or Sustainable Development?

The U.S. Green Building Council provides a LEED Professional Accreditation to distinguish building professionals who have attained the knowledge and skills to successfully steward the LEED Certification process. LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs) have demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and principles and the LEED Green Building Rating System. The LEED AP credential represents knowledge of the LEED Rating System and its application in practice. LEED APs facilitate the integrated design process and streamline the LEED Certification process. More than 60,000 building professionals from across all areas of practice have become LEED APs since the Professional Accreditation program was launched in 2001.