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Entitlements and Permits in Los Angeles

“Compared to other great cities, Los Angeles may be planned or designed in a very fragmentary sense (primarily at the level of its infrastructure) but it is infinitely envisioned.” - Mike Davis in City of Quartz

Because of the vast number of neighborhoods, communities, and cities that make up the Los Angeles area along with its vast economic and cultural output, L.A. has been observed to be more akin to a city-state than a traditional city. This dissipated makeup is one of the aspects that makes L.A. unique, with each fiefdom claiming its own idiosyncratic L.A. character, but it is also a factor that makes dealing with its bureaucracy a maddening experience. Even when working within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles proper, the hodgepodge of zoning, community plans, specific plans, zoning overlay zones, special ordinance zones and other restrictions makes deciphering how to build here a unique challenge.

One of the most confusing aspects of taking on any building project in L.A., then, is getting it permitted. The process involves various agencies and jurisdictions, and it is the subject about which I get some of the most questions from clients and investors. If you’re not familiar with it, the process can be intimidating, circular, and confusing. And while every project can be its own animal, this week I’ll run through the broad strokes of the process in an attempt to make it a bit less murky. For those of you already familiar with the generalities, look out for later posts that dive more deeply into specific aspects of the morass.

First, it is important to understand the difference between entitlements and permits. Broadly speaking, the former describes the process of getting permission to use the site as you intend, and the latter is concerned with making sure the project is designed to applicable codes. In general, there are two overarching departments that will review a project for compliance: the planning department reviews for entitlement and the building department reviews for permits. This is an oversimplification, of course, and each department splinters into various agencies, but for the purposes of this discussion these distinctions suffice. In later posts we’ll address more specific issues encountered during the process from the various interdepartmental agencies.

We’ll keep this conversation specific to the City of L.A., but the process described is generally applicable to just about every jurisdiction. The departments we deal with here are Los Angeles City Planning (from here on out, Planning) and the Los Angeles Department of Building Services (LADBS). Most projects of any significant scale will require review by both, a process that can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more. Rare is the project that aims to build more than a few units of housing that does not require a form of review by Planning.

A Planning review involves determining compliance with the underlying zoning, including any Community Plans or Specific Plans adopted, overlay zones, or special conditions. There are three overarching types of review by Planning: by-right/ministerial review; administrative review; and discretionary review. The first two can be relatively quick, especially compared to a discretionary review.

If a project is in compliance with all the zoning codes and meets all development standards, it is considered a by-right development and will likely not require any Planning review. Or, if so, it will require minimal ministerial review based on objective standards. In these cases, a project can move swiftly through Planning or apply directly to LADBS without first having to apply for Planning approval.

If the project is within the bounds of a Plan Overlay zone or if other certain zoning conditions apply, it will be required to receive administrative approval to verify compliance with existing regulations. These reviews can be done over the counter in the quickest cases, but will likely require referral to the planner in charge of the geographical area in which the project is located. According to data from Planning, on average administer approvals are issued 13 days after submission (in my experience, it has typically been longer than this but not by much). These reviews are done based on objective measures and are non-discretionary.

Discretionary approvals are required in all other cases, such as when a project is determined to be not in compliance with the Zoning Code or its proposed size, use, or location triggers additional formal review. In such cases, these project approvals will require a discretionary entitlement application process and may require a public hearing before Planning can issue a recommendation or determination letter. These discretionary approvals are the most time consuming of all Planning reviews and can take many months (sometimes a year or more) to get done.

Once a project has been cleared by Planning, it can apply for building permits. Getting cleared by Planning essentially means that the project use has been approved for the site, but it is important to remember that Planning does not look at how the buildings will be built, only what will be built. The how portion gets reviewed by LADBS, and they will ultimately issue the building permit on the project that allows for construction to commence. So, when submitting projects for Planning review and approval, we are typically only submitting schematic drawing sets. This is because it makes little sense to go through the expense of fully designing, detailing, and engineering a project for construction if we are unsure whether or not it will be allowed. Once we have cleared Planning review we’ll typically continue to develop a project through its full construction documentation sets, and it is this that gets reviewed by LADBS before a permit is issued.

While Planning is more concerned with use and massing, LADBS review is primarily concerned with life and safety. The building will be reviewed in much greater detail for compliance with applicable building codes and standards. Hence, the need for detailed CD sets for this phase of the permitting process. Each incorporated municipality or County typically has their own building code (in L.A. its the City of Los Angeles Building Code), but in large part these codes are modeled directly on the California Building Code (CBC). The structure of the building will be reviewed along with the load calculations. Project use, egress, fire life safety protections, load calculations, and material testing among other aspects will be considered as well.

Although LADBS review is not discretionary, then, it can be a complicated process in its own right. This is because in addition to basic code compliance, a project will be reviewed by a host of interdepartmental agencies for compliance in a wide array of areas. To name a few, L.A. Green plan check will review the project for meeting Energy Code requirements, for example, while the Bureau of Engineering will look at street improvements or driveways, the Department of Sanitation will make sure the project is meeting Low Impact Development (LID) standards, and the Disabled Access and Services department (DAS) will review for accessibility issues. In addition to this, the Fire Department will always need to review for fire life safety issues and the Police department will often need to review as well.

Once all these hurdles have been cleared, a project building permit is “ready-to-issue” (RTI) and once the permit fee is paid it can be issued and construction can commence. Simple, right? The process described is daunting, and this–unfortunately–is an oversimplification of everything involved. However, if planned correctly getting a project permitted does not have to be a complete headache nor take an exorbitant amount of time. And recent changes at the State level have given local municipalities timelines they must adhere to for certain decisions which work to make the process quicker overall. Still, having the right ally to help navigate the system is key, especially as projects grow in size and complexity.

We’ll get more in the weeds regarding specific requirements in later posts. If you’re ready to take on the process or are curious about your specific project requirements, however, reach out to us for a consultation. We have a fair amount of experience working with the City and County to get projects through the process successfully; let us do the same for you.