How to Get San Diego's Development Services Department To Respond To You

By Sean Canning

Hi, I'm Sean Canning, the principal architect at Ten Seventy architecture. We're one of the leading experts in San Diego's accessory dwelling unit regulations and today I wanted to make a video that addresses a question that comes up all the time. 

How do I get a direct answer from the Development Services Department

Well, the Development Services Department (also known as the building department or the permit office) can be very difficult to deal with. 

In most cases, they just ignore emails, they don't return phone calls. And in general, they kind of apply a customer is always wrong policy to everything. It's not a very friendly place to do business, but it is a necessary evil to get a permit for your architecture project in San Diego. 

So we basically use a three-step approach to try to get our questions answered. 

The first thing we'll do is just research the municipal code. 

In California, there's the California Building Code, but you also have the city of San Diego's Municipal Code, which kind of fills in a lot of the blanks between the state code. 

So most of the questions you're going to have, the answers are going to be right in the municipal code. 

You can also look up and see if there are any info bulletins. 

For some reason, the development services department doesn't put all the information in the municipal code. They kind of sneak it into these in info bulletins, and there's like over 600 of them. So you can also just Google “info bulletins 10-foot retaining walls” “info bulletins 10-foot fence building”, that type of thing. 

Now if you can't get the answer in the municipal code or in the info bulletins the next step is to start to ask the staff directly. 

But like I said, they're not going to answer emails, and they're not going to return phone calls. 

So that can be very challenging. The city of San Diego actually created a great process for this ever since the COVID pandemic. There's an avenue for what they call a virtual over-the-counter meeting. 

And this is what you want to do - schedule yourself a virtual over-the-counter meeting with whichever department can answer your question.

So if it's a question about building a house - that's going to be planning. If it's a question about cutting a tree down, that's going to be landscaping, etc. 

Now, here's the trick. 

When you schedule this meeting, schedule a second meeting at a different time. This way, you're going to get two different opinions from two different staffers. 

And what we're finding is that the accuracy of the staff is probably just about 50%. So most of the time, or I guess I should say half of the time, we're not getting correct information from the staff. 

So that's why it's very important to schedule these meetings. 

And then what you do after the meeting, follow up with an email to them and put what you just heard in writing and say “hey, just to confirm, this is what we’re going to go do based on the meeting we just had.

However, the information you get from these virtual over-the-counter meetings, they're not going to stand behind it. So if you're talking about a much larger project or a much larger investment, you're really going to want to iron everything out and just pin them down on an answer.

And that's where step three comes in.

And you're only going to use step three if you absolutely need it because this one actually costs you money. 

The City of San Diego has created a process, which they call a “preliminary submittal”. And there are different versions of this - there's a single disciplinary submittal and there is a multiple disciplinary submittal.

Basically, if you had a series of like 12 questions about a home you wanted to build or a development idea you have in the back of your mind, you can list those questions, provide all this supportive material, and you can submit this as a single disciplinary review or multiple disciplinary and then the staff will go on record with their answers. 

Now that will take about a whole month to complete, but they guarantee the answers for an entire year. So if they put something that's wrong in there, which by the way happens quite a bit, they have to stand behind them for at least one year. 

Now I do have one more tip for you about single or multiple disciplinary reviews. 

I strongly recommend you put a question into your group of questions, which you already know the answer to. 

This way if that question ends up being wrong, you can send it back to them and you can say hey, one of these questions is definitely wrong. I'm going to assume the rest are wrong. Please have your supervisor review it. 

And that is the best way you can get a straight answer from San Diego's Development Services Department. 

Helpful Resources

City of San Diego Municipal Code

Information Bulletins

Book a Virtual or In-Person Appointment

Preliminary Review Info

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