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Don’t Get Started On Your Development Project Unless You Have Zoning in Place

by California Digital News

In my previous article, we delved into the essential elements of development zoning. We explored key zoning designations such as R or C, critical parameters including setbacks, FAR, and building heights, strategies for enhancing density via affordable housing, the role of neighborhood ordinances, and the distinctions between by-right and discretionary review processes.

In this article, we’ll delve into the crucial task of determining the development zoning for your project—an essential step to undertake before acquiring any development project. Mastering the intricacies of development zoning necessitates a strategic methodology, and we’ll unveil three pivotal strategies.

Online Platforms and Geographic Information System (GIS) Mapping

Digital tools can really simply your investigative efforts. Utilize online platforms and geographic information system (GIS) mapping to access invaluable data. Websites such as this one from the city of Los Angeles serve as exemplary resources. By simply entering the street address, these interactive zoning maps can help you visualize zoning boundaries, overlays, and specific stipulations with ease.

GIS websites offer a wealth of information detailing zoning designations, height categories, and occasionally density incentives linked to transit proximity. Additionally, they may encompass neighborhood ordinances associated with specific lots, although accuracy is not always definitive. 

However, while GIS provides valuable insights, it doesn’t prescribe the precise scope of permissible construction. Determining the feasibility of your project hinges on interpreting the zoning designations in conjunction with the city’s zoning guidelines, thereby synthesizing a comprehensive understanding tailored to your development objectives.

Let’s illustrate this with a hypothetical city. Consider a project labeled R3-2. Consulting the zoning handbook, you discern that this designation signifies a residential zoning classification. The “3” indicates a density allowance of one unit per 800 square feet (sf) of lot area. Thus, for an 8,000 sf lot, you can construct up to 10 units. 

Additionally, the 3 mandates specific requirements, such as allocating one parking space per unit and maintaining a 10-foot setback from the property line on all sides. Depending on the jurisdiction, the 3 may also convey additional stipulations.

Meanwhile, the 2 following the R3 designation signifies the height category. In our hypothetical city, this translates to a permissible building height of 45 feet and a floor area ratio (FAR) of 3:1. In alternative jurisdictions, you might encounter a designation like R3-45, which straightforwardly indicates a maximum building height of 45 feet.

Navigating density incentives can be intricate. When exploring GIS platforms, focus your search on terms like “transit orientation incentives” or “density incentives” to uncover potential bonuses. 

If your search proves unfruitful, consider examining state-level incentives. For instance, a specific state might offer incentives for projects situated within a half-mile radius of a metro station, enabling a 60% increase in both unit density and FAR upon allocating 10% of the units to low-income residents. Furthermore, state incentives could potentially reduce parking requirements and permit higher building heights.

In the context of our example project, by designating one unit for low-income housing, you’re able to construct up to 16 units. It’s worth noting that calculations typically necessitate rounding up to the nearest whole number. Thus, if your base unit count is 11, a 10% allocation would equate to two affordable units.

Contacting Local Planners

Engaging directly with city planners responsible for urban planning is a good alternative. While digital tools offer initial insights, consulting municipal offices provides a tailored, authoritative understanding, complementing your GIS-based research. This approach not only validates your findings but also uncovers any local ordinances potentially overlooked in GIS data.

When reaching out to local authorities, furnish specific details about your property or project, including address, lot size, and intended use. This facilitates accurate identification of the relevant zoning designation, enabling officials to outline associated requirements or restrictions. Proactive dialogue with city planners fosters collaboration, giving you invaluable insights into zoning dynamics and navigating development opportunities or constraints effectively.

Furthermore, consider scheduling an in-person meeting or consultation with zoning officials to discuss your project in depth. This personalized approach facilitates a comprehensive review of your plans, enabling authorities to offer tailored guidance and clarify any ambiguities related to zoning designations. By fostering an open, collaborative dialogue with local authorities, you can navigate the complexities of zoning regulations with confidence, ensuring your project aligns with the applicable zoning designations and regulatory frameworks.

Responsiveness can vary among planners. To expedite communication, I recommend employing multiple contact methods simultaneously, such as initiating phone calls, sending emails to both the general email address and a few individual planners, and securing an in-person appointment. This multifaceted approach increases the likelihood of a prompt and comprehensive response, facilitating a smoother progression through the zoning process.

Asking Consultants

Engaging the right consultants can be very effective in navigating the complexities of development zoning, but it could cost you a few thousand dollars. These experts bring specialized knowledge and experience, offering invaluable insights that complement your understanding of zoning regulations. 

Not all consultants will give you good service, so be careful whom you ask for help. When selecting consultants, prioritize individuals or firms with a proven track record in your specific area of interest, whether it’s residential, commercial, or mixed-use developments. Alternatively, you could also reach out to local developers who have a proven track record if you’re interested in a joint venture.

When approaching consultants, articulate your project’s objectives, scope, and any preliminary findings or challenges you’ve encountered. This foundational information enables consultants to tailor their expertise to your unique needs, providing targeted guidance and solutions.

In the preliminary stage, the main consultants needed are architects or land-use consultants. If the site could be contaminated, hire an environmental consultant to do a Phase I assessment, which typically costs a few thousand dollars and takes a few weeks. 

Additionally, it’s crucial to define clear expectations regarding deliverables, timelines, and communication protocols upfront. For questions limited to zoning parameters, which typically take only 10 to 20 minutes, consultants may offer their insights at no cost. However, for comprehensive feasibility studies encompassing design options and floor plans, these services should be anticipated to cost several thousand dollars.

Some Worthy Tips

As a bonus, here’s a look at some other factors to consider.

Escrow timeline

Extending the escrow period is essential for securing development rights, especially with challenging zoning regulations. I recommend at least a 30-day contingency period, but for larger projects, consider a three-to-six-month escrow to do a thorough feasibility study and get some feedback from the planning department. 


During escrow, consult with the local power department or a dry utility specialist to determine the power supply options for your site. Larger projects often necessitate transformers and underground conduits, both of which entail significant costs and time. If securing power is projected to span two years, you must factor this into your project schedule.

Other utilities

While utilities such as gas, water, and sewer typically present fewer challenges, their installation can become complex and costly in rural areas. Thus, conducting thorough due diligence on utility provisions is essential to mitigate potential delays and budget overruns in your development project.

City timeline

Every city possesses its own unique timeline for the entitlement and permitting processes, reflecting varying regulatory frameworks and administrative efficiencies. In some cities, such as Seoul, Korea, the permitting phase can be done in a few months. Conversely, cities like San Francisco exemplify a more protracted timeline, where both entitlement and permitting processes need to be done sequentially and usually take three years. 

In cities where parallel entitlement and permitting are allowed, developers gain a strategic edge. Initiating the permitting process before full entitlement completion can expedite the timeline by six months or more, a benefit of this concurrent approach.

Final Thoughts

I hope these strategies serve you well on your next development project. If you have other tips or questions that you wish to share, feel free to comment below or reach out to me.

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.

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