Discretionary Permits

A discretionary permit is a permit that requires the exercise of discretion by a decision-maker based on written findings supporting their decision. Some discretionary permits require public notice (notification to your neighbors and in the newspaper) or a public hearing. Examples of discretionary permits are variances, coastal permits, and subdivisions. Discretionary permits must be completed before a building permit can be issued.

There are different types of discretionary permits, depending upon the project type. Information about the different types of discretionary permits, as well as variances and coastal development permits, is provided in the links below:

Discretionary Permit Processing Levels

You can read more about the discretionary permit levels here.

Common Discretionary Permits

Bear in mind that obtaining discretionary permit approval is typically only one step in the development process. Additional permits and approvals will likely be required from other County departments and outside agencies. As the property owner, it is important that you familiarize yourself with the fees and permitting requirements of all the relevant reviewing agencies. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure that all the applicable approvals and permits are obtained for your project.

Before designing your project, you should first review the feasibility of it. Does the zoning allow for the type of development you are contemplating? Are there any environmental constraints present on the project site? What are the permitting and construction costs associated with the project being contemplated? Doing your homework early on, before you formulate your project plans, will save you time and money in the long run. Consider the following as you research the feasibility of your project:

  • If you parcel is vacant, your first step will be reviewing the buildability criteria which you can read about here.
  • What is the permit history of the parcel?
    For permits from 1985 on, you can run a Parcel Information Report.
    For earlier permits, submit a request to our Records staff here.

    More resources are available on the Records and Parcel Research webpage.
  • Does the use comply with the parcel’s zoning?
    You can find your parcel’s zoning in the Parcel Information Report under “Parcel Information”.
    You can find the use chart associated with your zoning here.
  • Will your project comply with the zone district site standards?
    You can find site standards here.
  • What mapped environmental and land use constraints affect your property?
    The County’s Geographic Information System (GIS) allows you to run a Property Report which details the mapped constraints affecting your property. Find directions for using the GIS here.

More resources for researching permits and parcel information are available here.

Once you have refined the scope of your project and completed your on-line research, we recommend that you schedule an in-person or telephone meeting with a planner using the Appointment Scheduler or email a planner at: Planning.zoninginfo@santacruzcountyca.gov. Zoning Counter planners provide general zoning information, address questions related to the permit application submittal and review processes, and identify the documents necessary to apply for a permit, including the List of Required Information. In addition, the planner may be able to identify specific issues that may arise in processing your application. 

You also may be able to get your questions answered by reviewing our Frequently Asked Questions webpage.

Prior to application submittal, in-depth analysis by Planning Division staff is often useful, especially for larger or more complex projects. Planning staff are available on an at-cost basis via the Project Review Consultation process. You may apply for a Project Review Consultation by emailing a Discretionary Permit Intake Request Form to the intake team at: discretionary.eplanreview@santacruzcountyca.gov. Typically, an at-cost deposit of $2,000.00 is requested at the time of submittal; however, for smaller projects a lesser amount may be suitable. To apply for a Consultation, you should be prepared to submit a preliminary plan set, program statement, and the deposit fee.

All permit applications, except those for wireless communication facilities, are submitted through the department’s online ePlan Review portal. To submit a discretionary application, please visit the  ePlan Review webpage and click on the “Discretionary” bar.  For step-by-step instructions, please refer to the Discretionary Permit ePlan Overview & Application Process.  Please review the Vacation Rentals and Hosted Rentals webpages for application information specific to these permit types. 

Discretionary Permit costs vary depending upon the permit type(s), project characteristics, and location. Cost information is available here, and payments are made online here


Depending on the application type, and the level of review required, the permit process varies. In general, the application review process includes the following steps:

  • Upon application submittal and fee payment, the project is assigned to a planner for processing and routed to other departments and agencies. For example, if a project includes roadway and/or drainage improvements, the project would be routed to the Division of Public Works.
  • Once routed, staff will analyze your project for completeness and decide whether the plans and materials are consistent with the County’s List of Required Information (LORI), as well as whether additional information, reports, or studies are necessary to evaluate the project. Staff will also begin to evaluate your project for conformance with County policies, guidelines, and regulations.
  • The project planner will likely conduct a site visit within a few weeks of the project assignment.
  • Approximately 30 days from the date of application submittal, the project planner will make a completeness determination. The project applicant, as well as the property owner, will be informed of staff’s completeness determination in writing. In the event the application is deemed incomplete, an itemized list of the outstanding required information will be provided.
  • If your application is deemed incomplete, then you will address the identified issues and resubmit through the ePlan Review portal.


Once your project has been deemed complete, for administrative and conditional projects, a public notice, including the project description, will be mailed to neighboring property owners. In addition, most discretionary projects require on-site noticing.

Additional information about the on-site noticing requirement, can be found in the Guidelines for Neighborhood Notification of Proposed Development and also in Santa Cruz County Code 18.10 (Procedures).


Staff will analyze your project for compliance with the applicable Federal, State, and local policies, regulations, and guidelines, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Discretionary projects are evaluated for consistency with various policies, regulations, and guidelines published by the County, as well as specific “findings” that apply to each permit type.

Most projects are exempt from further environmental review pursuant to the CEQA guidelines; however, some projects require in-depth environmental review in the form of an Initial Study to determine whether or not the project would result in environmental impacts. If an Initial Study is required, you will be notified of this by the project planner. Additional fees are required for processing an Initial Study.

In the event your project is determined to be exempt from further review under CEQA, the project planner will move forward with preparation of the staff report, findings, and conditions of approval.


For administrative approvals, the project planner will issue their recommendation in the form of a staff report, findings and conditions of approval which will be decided upon by the department director or their designee. Administrative decisions are typically issued approximately three months after an application is determined to be complete. Administrative decisions may be appealed.

For projects that require a public hearing before the Zoning Administrator, Planning Commission, or Board of Supervisors, the staff report, findings, CEQA recommendation, and conditions of approval are submitted to the applicable decision-maker for review and approval. Members of the public are welcome to attend public hearings and address the decision maker. Discretionary decisions made on your application, by either the Zoning Administrator or Planning Commission, can be appealed, either by you, or any member of the public within 14 days of the decision.

For more information about the discretionary permit process, or for general inquiries regarding a zoning related matter, please email our planning/zoning staff at PlanningZoningInfo@santacruzcountyca.gov.