Construction, Development and Zoning

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 zoning and environmental issues that will affect 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 usually provide more detail and consultation with property owners.

Is a Building Permit required for all structures?

Most cities and counties in California (and other Western states) have adopted the International Building Code (IBC), which specifies minimum standards for the construction of buildings. The IBC 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 IBC exempts from needing a Building Permit. However, each locality can adopt the IBC with certain modifications. You should contact your local Building Department to determine if all the IBC’s exemptions have been adopted. Also ask them which edition of the IBC has been adopted by your City Council or Board of Supervisors. Most public libraries have a copy of the latest edition of the IBC 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 have size and 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 zonings 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 allows 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 the property is located in? 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 their function as a natural habitat 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 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 shed 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.