Discretionary Review (DR) Reform Effort
What is DR?
Discretionary Review (DR) is the authority of the Planning Commission to review projects that comply with the San Francisco Planning Code and take action if it is found that the case demonstrates an exceptional and extraordinary circumstance. Currently anyone can file a DR Application on any building permit, and have that project brought before the Planning Commission for a public hearing and review.
Conceptually, DR is a second look—with the opportunity for public participation—at building permit applications that have already been determined to comply with Planning Code standards and applicable design standards. The idea is that additional scrutiny by the Planning Commission might be necessary in some cases to judge whether the design guidelines were interpreted correctly or whether there are circumstances unique to a case that warrant further modifications of the proposed project, beyond the standards of the Code and applicable design guidelines.
What's wrong with DR, and why does it need to be reformed?
Currently, anyone for any reason can file a DR Application and bring a project before the Planning Commission for a public hearing. While this ensures that neighbors are provided an opportunity to express their concerns about a project to the Planning Commission, it does not result in a predictable and consistent development process. It also makes the development process more lengthy and costly for all involved, and takes time away from the Commission to address larger planning issues.
Overview of the DR Reform Effort?
Approximately one year ago, the Land Use Committee (LUC) of the Board of Supervisors tabled the proposed Discretionary Review (DR) Reform legislation. At that time the LUC asked Planning Department staff to report back within one year on the effectiveness of several procedural improvements staff had made as part of the DR Reform policy adopted by the Planning Commission (PC) on June 18, 2009, and updated on March 04, 2010. These procedural improvements include an expanded and formalized Pre-Application Process, establishment of thresholds to require review of projects by the Department's Residential Design Team, establishment of a definition for "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances," and timelines for review of DR Applications.
If you are looking for a more detailed view of the DR Reform effort and procedings, take a closer look in the following PDFs:
- Memo to Planning Commission dated March 18, 2011
- Timeline of DR Reform - June 2011
- History of DR Reform - June 2011
- Elements of DR Reform - June 2011
- DR Legal Opinions - June 2011
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the definition of Exceptional and Extraordinary?
Until the Planning Commission adopted the DR Reform Package, there was no clear definition of what constitutes "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances." As part of DR reform the Commission defined exceptional and extraordinary circumstances as the following:
"Exceptional and extraordinary circumstances occur where the common-place application of adopted design standards to a project does not enhance or conserve neighborhood character, or balance the right to develop the property with impacts on near-by properties or occupants. These circumstances may arise due to complex topography, irregular lot configuration, unusual context or other conditions not addressed in the design standards."
- What are the main aspects of the new reform package?
- Strengthen pre-application meeting requirements, broaden the project types that require pre-application, and make consistent the scope and type of information exchanged at those meetings to improve communication between project sponsors and their neighbors
- Improve the Department's internal design review process to provide balanced, transparent, and consistent application of the Planning Code and design standards;
- Improve public information about the Discretionary Review process in general, and provide access to project-specific information on-line;
- Define "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances" in the context of Discretionary Review;
- Use the definition of "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances" to allow only those projects that could meet exceptional and extraordinary standards to proceed to a Commission hearing (applications where the standard was not met could be appealed to the Board of Appeals);
- Ensure that cases heard by the Commission are identified either as one-of-a-kind, or a representative of a policy issue that should be incorporated into design standards;
- Adopt timelines for review, response and hearing of Discretionary Review requests; and
- Specify a 24-month (2-year) trial period, and at the 18-month point initiate a public evaluation of the efficacy and effectiveness of the reforms, and at the two year mark, the Commission would continue, modify, or discontinue the policy.
- What policies are now in effect?
The policies that are now in effect are those that did not require a change in legislation. Those that do require legislation must be approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed into law by the Mayor. The aspects of the reform package that are now in effect include:
- The revised pre-application meeting requirements,
- Mandatory review by the Planning Department's Residential Design Team (RDT) of all projects that exceed certain quantitative triggers
- Mandatory review of all DR Applications by the RDT so that the RDT can make a recommendation to the Planning Commission regarding the DR Application
- The RDT documents all of its decisions and makes those available to the public for review.
- A mandatory 90-day timeline for DR applications to be heard by the Planning Commission.
- The definition of "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances"
- What is a pre-application meeting?
If you submitted your project on or after July 20, 2009, you are required to follow the new pre-application process. A pre-application meeting is a meeting held by the project sponsor before they submit their building permit application or other entitlement application (i.e. Variance or Conditional Use) to the Planning Department. The intent behind the pre-application meeting is to initiate neighbor communication in order to identify potential issues and concerns early on; provide the project sponsor the opportunity to address neighbor concerns about the potential impacts of the project prior to submitting an application; and to reduce the number of Discretionary Review request that are filed.
Not all projects are subject to a pre-application meeting. Projects that require pre-application meetings include:
- New Construction (subsequent to a demolition or on an undeveloped portion of the lot);
- Vertical additions that add 7 or more feet to an existing building height;
- Horizontal additions that add 10 or more feet to an existing building depth at any level;
- Decks that are subject to Section 311 or 312 Notification
- New Formula Retail Uses
This process is not intended to be a forum in which to discuss personal choices of property owners, programmatic issues, aesthetic preferences or rationale for development.
- What are the Residential Design Guidelines?
The Residential Design Guidelines are codified in Section 311 of the Planning Code and are required to be applied to residential projects in R-Districts. The Guidelines articulate expectations regarding the character of the built environment and are intended to promote design that will protect neighborhood character, enhancing the attractiveness and quality of life in the City. The Guidelines address basic principles of urban design that will result in residential development that maintains cohesive neighborhood identity, preserves historic resources, and enhances the unique setting and character of the City and its residential neighborhoods. The Guidelines also suggest opportunities for residential designs to further San Francisco's goal of environmental sustainability.
- What is the Residential Design Team (RDT)?
The Residential Design Team (RDT) is made up of nine staff planners – all with design experience and extensive experience at the Planning Department – that review projects to ensure that they comply with the Residential Design Guidelines (RDG). All of the RDT's decisions are documented and are available to the public on-line in the near future. The RDT meets twice each week and reviews approximately four projects per meeting.
The planners on the Residential Design Team include:
- David Lindsay: Northwest Quadrant
- Glenn Cabreros: Northwest Quadrant
- Elizabeth Watty: Northwest/Northeast Quadrant
- Tim Frye: Preservation
- Michael Smith: Southwest Quadrant
- Ben Fu: Southeast Quadrant
- Tina Tam: Preservation
- Kevin Brusatori: Public Information Center
- David Winslow: Staff Architect
- Can I attend a Residential Design Team (RDT) Meeting?
No, the Residential Design Team is a Planning Department staff review body that reviews projects to make sure that they comply with the Residential Design Guidelines. All of the RDT's decisions are documented and made available for public review. A member of the RDT and the assigned staff planner are available to meet with the DR Requestor or Project Sponsor to further discuss the RDT's comments.
- Will DR Reform change how the Planning Department reviews permits?
Yes. The intent behind DR reform is to provide more certainty and consistency in the Planning Department's permit review process. Therefore, more projects will be required to be reviewed by the Residential Design Team (RDT). Projects that may not have been reviewed by the RDT in the past may now require RDT review; however the Department has increased the number of time slots for RDT review to ensure that there is no added delay in processing permits.
- Will DR Reform change the 311/312 Neighborhood Notification process?
No. DR Reform does not change the 311/312 Neighborhood Notification process.
DR Reform 2008-2010
On March 4, 2010, the Planning Commission adopted an amended DR Reform policy which superseded their policy adopted on June 18, 2009. The amended Policy was the result of continued community outreach. On March 8, 2010, after four hearings at the Board of Supervisor's Land Use Committee, Supervisor Mar introduced "Amendments of the Whole" and then continued the legislation to the "Call of the Chair." The Committee felt that it was not the right time to reform the DR process, but that in a year it may be more appropriate to move forward with DR Reform.
On July 1, 2010, the Department presented Interim DR Procedures to the Planning Commission. For the remainder of the interim year, the Department will continue to provide every DR request with a public hearing, while reducing the amount of staff time required to process DRs. You can view a copy of the memo outlining these procedures here.
If you have any questions or comments about the DR Reform Effort specifically, you can contact our Planning Department staff. We look forward to assisting you.
Elizabeth Watty, 415-558-6620
SF Planning Department
1650 Mission Street, Suite 400
San Francisco, CA 94103