Changing or Challenging Zoning in San Diego: A Brief Overview for Real Estate Investors

Author: Staff

Zoning is an important part of land use planning in nearly every major city in the United States. Local governments usually have jurisdiction over land use issues. Both the City of San Diego and San Diego County have zoning ordinances and procedures for permitting construction and development in different zones. California real estate investors need to be familiar with local zoning ordinances, as well as the restrictions of land use that go along with them, before committing to an investment. While investors should always keep in mind the adage that “you can’t fight City Hall,” it is possible to challenge or change a zoning designation. In San Diego, this can happen in several ways involving the Planning Commission or the City Council. Litigation may also be a means of modifying zoning designations, although it is rarely a first resort.

The Zoning and Rezoning Processes

San Diego’s Land Development Code, found in the Municipal Code, Chapters 11 through 14, defines the types of zones in the city, as well as processes for zoning and rezoning particular areas. The city adopted an Official Zoning Map in 2006, which shows that nearly every part of the city has already received a zoning designation.

If an area within the city’s jurisdiction is not part of a zone, the Planning Commission or the City Council can enact a resolution establishing a zoning designation, or the property owner may apply to zone the property. The City Manager receives zoning applications from property owners. Sections 123.0103 and 112.0102 of the Municipal Code provide an outline of the application process.

If a piece of property already has a zoning designation, rezoning is possible through the same process as zoning—an action by the city or an application by the property owner. The City Council may make a zoning or rezoning decision, according to § 123.0105, if it is supported by “public necessity or convenience, the general welfare, or good zoning practice.”

The Land Development Code identifies five “decision processes” that the city must use when reviewing applications from property owners relating to land use. For zoning and rezoning applications, the city must use “Process Five,” defined in §§ 112.0501 and 112.0509. This process has four stages:  (1) submission of an application and plan; (2) review by city staff; (3) a recommendation hearing before the Planning Commission, with a decision required within 60 days of the hearing date; and (4) a hearing before the City Council. Hearings are subject to a public-notice requirement, and other interested or affected parties may have an opportunity to offer arguments in opposition to a proposed zoning change.

Challenges to Zoning Designations or Decisions

While decisions made using other processes may be subject to appeal, the Municipal Code does not allow administrative appeals of Process Five decisions. Other than applying again or seeking the support of members of the City Council, the main recourse at this point is litigation. A lawsuit must have a valid legal basis, however, and not liking the outcome of the application is rarely considered a valid claim in the courts.

State law gives cities broad discretion over zoning decisions and establishes a strict 90-day deadline to file suit. Courts also tend to give cities wide latitude with regard to zoning decisions. Successful legal challenges usually involve an alleged abuse of discretion or zoning practices that are discriminatory or in violation of constitutional rights.

More Blog Posts:

Zoning for San Diego Real Estate Investors: A General Overview, Titles and Deeds, March 30, 2018

Common Interest Developments, Homeowner Associations, and California Real Estate Investments, Titles and Deeds, January 10, 2018

The California Coastal Commission Regulates Oceanfront Property Under California Law, Titles and Deeds, December 19, 2017

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