Grading Permits

When is a Grading Permit Required?

A grading permit is required for the following activities, as outlined in County Code Section 16.20.050. The following guidelines are written for information only and are superseded by the language included in County Code Section 16.20.050 Chapter 16.20 Grading Regulations (Effective Within Coastal Zone) (codepublishing.com) and Chapter 16.20 Grading Regulations (Effective Outside Coastal Zone) (codepublishing.com) 

  • Excavation or fill whose volume exceeds 100 cubic yards
  • Creating a cut slope greater than five feet high
  • Creating fills greater than two feet in depth
  • Fills placed on natural terrain with a slope greater than 20 percent
  • Fill that alters or obstructs a drainage course
  • Fill that will be used for structural support*
  • All shoreline protection projects, including seawalls and rip-rap, even if they involve less than 100 cubic yards of material.

* Fill used for structural support includes over-excavation and re-compaction of soil beneath foundation elements.

The following activities are exempt from requiring a grading permit:

  • Excavations below grade for basements** and footings of a building, retaining wall or other structure authorized by a valid building permit.
  • Cemetery graves
  • Permitted refuse disposal sites being controlled pursuant to other county regulations
  • Excavations for individual and community sewage disposal systems made pursuant to permit***
  • Excavations for wells and utilities***
  • Mining and quarrying excavations and stockpiling pursuant to County permit
  • Exploratory excavations under the direction of a soils engineer or engineering geologist***
  • Routine plowing, harrowing, disking, ridging, listing, land planing, and similar operations necessary to prepare a field for a crop for continued agricultural use. (All other agricultural grading shall be subject to the procedures of Section 16.20.195)
  • Timber harvesting work done pursuant to a valid timber harvesting permit

** "Basement" as defined in County Code Section 13.10.700-B.
*** Access roads to access septic sites, wells, exploratory drilling sites, etc. are not exempt from grading permit requirements.

Your grading project must meet all requirements of the County Code (Chapter 16.20), Chapter 16.20 GRADING REGULATIONS (Effective Within Coastal Zone) (codepublishing.com) and Chapter 16.20 GRADING REGULATIONS (Effective Outside Coastal Zone) (codepublishing.com)the General Plan and the most current version of the California Building Code (CBC) as adopted by the County of Santa Cruz. 

Grading projects vary considerably throughout the County, as do the properties where grading is proposed. It is impossible to list all the specific requirements here. You are encouraged to make an appointment with Environmental Planning staff prior to preparing your grading application to determine whether any special rules or constraints apply to your property. These might include: the Coastal Zone, a designated scenic area, or the presence of an environmentally sensitive resource such as a stream, riparian area, or habitat for rare or endangered species.

General requirements applicable to most grading permit applications include:

  • All plans must comply with the design standards contained in the Grading Ordinance. These technical standards cover slope angle, fill placement, road standards and related issues. (If your project is for construction of a road, you should contact the responsible Fire Department to determine their road requirements before preparing your grading plans.)
  • The project should be designed to maintain the natural contours of the site and to minimize grading to the greatest extent possible. Projects that propose significant alterations to natural topography, instead of minimizing the amount of earthwork (for example, utilizing retaining walls or grade beam or stepped foundations), may be denied. This issue becomes especially important in visually prominent areas in the Coastal Zone.
  • The project must also conform with the County Erosion Control Ordinance. This ordinance contains standards prohibiting obstruction of natural drainage courses and generally prohibiting the construction of new roads on slopes greater than 30 percent. This ordinance also requires soil erosion to be minimized and controlled at all times, and requires preparation of a specific Erosion Control Plan.
  • Grading activity is generally not approved during the rainy season, October 15th to April 15th. Grading during this period requires specific approval, and is subject to strict limitations. You should plan to conduct your grading operations during the period between April 16th and October 14th.
  • Grading permits to construct a building site or an access road to serve a building site cannot be issued until the building permit for the structure is also issued.

Building permits which involve site grading for development do not require a separate grading permit. In these cases, review and approval of the grading plan will take place during building permit application review process.

Grading projects not associated with a building permit application are called "stand-alone" grading permits, which undergo discretionary review by staff. Regardless of the level of review required for the grading permit, all requirements listed below still apply.

Instruction for applying are available here.

Grading without a valid permit is a violation of the County Code. Penalties can include recordation of a Notice of Violation on the property deed and fines of up to $2,500 per day. To rectify a grading violation, a grading permit must be obtained, and the site may have to be restored to its original condition.

If you would like to report a grading violation click here

The California State Licensing Board requires contractors to obtain a permit prior to performing work. Please also note that the Planning Department reports contractors who perform work without permits to the Contractors State Licensing Board via their complaint form