Zoning for San Diego Real Estate Investors: A General Overview

San Diego BayAuthor: Staff

San Diego real estate investors need to be aware of land use restrictions, such as restrictive covenants included in a deed, or zoning and other restrictions under city or county laws. Both the City of San Diego and San Diego County have zoning laws that restrict the use of land within their jurisdiction. We will focus on zoning within the City of San Diego.

What Is Zoning?

Zoning involves the division of land into zones reserved for specific uses, such as residential, commercial, or industrial. It developed in the United States in the early 20th century as a form of land use planning. The first zoning laws appeared in New York City, when the construction of ever taller skyscrapers began to block sunlight from existing properties. Since zoning involves restrictions on the use of private property, it raises questions about the extent of government power. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that zoning is within a city’s constitutional authority in 1926 in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.

In cities, zoning is intended to manage land use and growth. Larger and more populous cities tend to have more complicated zoning regulations. The one exception among large American cities is Houston, Texas, which has no zoning regulations and manages land use through deed restrictions and other means.

San Diego’s Zoning Ordinances

In an ordinance enacted in 1999, San Diego adopted the Land Development Code, which consists of Chapters 11 through 14 of the San Diego Municipal Code. Chapter 12, Article 3 of the Municipal Code establishes zoning procedures, while Chapter 13 defines the various zones. The 1999 ordinance made major changes to the city’s zoning designations. Properties purchased before January 2000 may still bear old zoning designations as a result.

San Diego has five base zones:  residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and open space. These designations establish the general type of use that is allowed on a property. Each parcel of private property in the city has a base zone designation. Planned districts have their own unique base zone designations.

Some private property in San Diego also has an overlay zone designation, which addresses specific geographic features. The city has numerous overlay zones for each type of base zone. Commercial zones, for example, may have limitations on permitted uses (CL), may require a Neighborhood Use Permit (CN) or a Conditional Use Permit (CC), or may not require additional permitting from the city (CP).

Each zone in the city has at least four zoning designations:  the base zone and the overlay zone, which are expressed as letters, and development regulations and use restrictions, which are expressed as numbers. A designation of RM-1-1 indicates residential low-density multiple dwelling units with no more than one unit per 3,000 square feet of total lot size, while RM-4-11 indicates high-density with a maximum of one unit per 200 square feet. These designations are described in Chapter 13 of the Municipal Code.

Finding Zoning Information

The City of San Diego provides a zoning map, which allows the public to search for individual real estate properties to determine their zoning designations. The map is divided into 49 grid tiles, with each tile having its own map available as a PDF file. Tile 26 on the San Diego zoning map, for example, includes part of the La Jolla neighborhood. It shows four base zones:  commercial, open space, residential, and the La Jolla Planned District. Except for the planned district, each base zone has an overlay zone designation. All zones have designations for development and use regulations.

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