Permit FAQ & Glossary

These are the questions we hear the most.

Each FAQ and answer is general and your question may require more detailed analysis, based on your specific project. If you don't see what you are looking for here, please visit or call us at the Planning Information Center (PIC) —we're here to help!


  • Do I need a permit?
  • How long does it take?
  • How much does it cost?

Zoning & Land Use

  • How do I find the zoning district (also known as "use district") of my property and what does it mean?
  • When would I need a Public Hearing?
  • What to expect at a Public Hearing
  • How do I request an inspection?
  • How do I report a potential code violation pertaining to minimum housing standard, land use violations, noise, vacant and unfit buildings, and more?

Permitting Glossary

Accessory Use

A "use" is a common planning concept. A use is established when land has been declared to be usable for a particular building type or development activity. (See Use definition below.) An accessory use is a building or a usage of land that is additional to primary use. A musical rehearsal studio or massage therapy office located inside your house is an example of an accessory use. For more information, download General Planning Information Bulletin: Accessory Uses for Dwellings.

Certificate of Appropriateness (C of A) Application

A Certificate of Appropriateness (CofA) is the authorization by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to perform specific scopes of work on designated City landmarks and buildings within historic districts. ... [Display Full Definition]

Change of Use

A "use" is a common planning concept. A use is established when land has been declared to be usable for a particular building type or development activity. (See Use definition below.) Change of Use is a change from one permitted use to another. The only guide for for determining whether one use is different from another is its treatment in the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online). If the Code treats them differently, they must be considered distinct uses. Thus if "Use A" is first permitted in a different zoning use district than "Use B," it is clear that they are different uses. A good way of thinking about it is whenever the use of a building or lot changes in a way that would be regulated differently than the current use, a change of use occurs.

Conditional Use (CU) Application

A Conditional Use (CU) is a type of land use that is not principally permitted in a particular Zoning District. Conditional Uses require a Planning Commission hearing in order to determine if the proposed use is necessary or desirable to the neighborhood, whether it may potentially have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and whether the use complies with the San Francisco General Plan. ... [Display Full Definition]

Discretionary Review (DR)

The Planning Commission has discretion over all Building Permit applications. Normally, this discretion is delegated to the Planning Department, which approves applications that meet the minimum standards of the Planning Code, including the priority policies of the San Francisco Planning Code Section 101.1. From time to time the Commission will review a Building Permit application. The Commission may determine that modifications to the proposed project are necessary in order to protect the public interest. If so, they can require the permit applicant to make the necessary changes and the Department will disapprove the application unless the required changes are made. This process of Commission consideration is commonly known as "Discretionary Review" or simply "DR." ... [Display Full Definition]

Entitlement Application

In land development, approvals for the right to develop property for a desired purpose or use are commonly referred to as "entitlements." For example, Building Permits, which are discretionary and based on approval, are entitlements. Other discretionary actions by the Planning Department that would also be considered entitlements might be the Conditional Use Authorization allowing a restaurant in a Neighborhood Commercial district. Other entitlements may authorize an exception to a rule, such as a Variance, or a 'Section 309' approval that authorizes exceptions to certain Planning Code requirements in the downtown area. ... [Display Full Definition]

Environmental Evaluation (EE) Application

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires public agencies to review the environmental impacts of proposed projects. In San Francisco, environmental review under CEQA is administered by the Environmental Planning (formerly MEA) division of the Planning Department. The environmental review process begins with the submittal of a completed Environmental Evaluation (EE) Application to the Planning Department. Only the current EE Application form will be accepted. No appointment is required but staff are available to meet with applicants upon request. ... [Display Full Definition]

Environmental Review

The Environmental Planning (formerly MEA) division of the Planning Department reviews projects for potential environmental impacts on the City of San Francisco and its residents, a process known as environmental review. Reviews are conducted pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Chapter 31 of the San Francisco Administrative Code, which provides guidelines for implementing the CEQA process. The reviews identify any potential adverse environmental effects of proposed actions, assesses their significance, and proposes measures to eliminate or mitigate significant impacts. ... [Display Full Definition]

Historic Preservation Commission Hearing

The Historic Preservation Commission is responsible for identifying and designating the San Francisco's landmarks and the buildings in the City's historic districts. It consists of seven Commissioners and a Commission Secretary. The Commission holds a public hearing (also known as a "Commission Meeting") twice monthly to carry out its duties. ... [Display Full Definition]

Formula Retail

Formula Retail establishment is sometimes loosely referred to as a "chain store." Under Planning Code Section 303(i), certain retail uses must have additional review to determine if they qualify as a "Formula Retail " use. If a use does qualify as a Formula Retail Establishment, then additional controls will apply depending on the zoning district where the proposed business will be located. ... [Display Full Definition]

Businesses subject to the formula retail establishment controls include the following 'Retail Sales Activity' or 'Retail Sales Establishment' as defined in Article 7 and Article 8 of the Planning Code: Bar, Drive-Up Facility, Eating and Drinking Use, Liquor Store, Other Retail Sales and Service, Restaurant, Limited-Restaurant, Take-Out Food, Retail Sales and Service, Financial Service, Movie Theater, Amusement and Game Arcade, Limited Financial Service, Fringe Financial Service, Tobacco Paraphernalia Establishment, Massage Establishment and Personal Service.

Download the Formula Retail Affidavit (PDF)

Mill's Act Historical Property Contract Application

The Mills Act is an important economic incentive program available in California for use by private property owners of qualified historic buildings. Enacted by the State of California in 1976 and amended in the San Francisco Administrative Code in 1996, the Mills Act provides for a potential 50 percent reduction in property taxes on qualified historical properties in exchange for the owner's agreement to maintain and preserve the resource in accordance with standards established by the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. ... [Display Full Definition]

Neighborhood Notification (also known as "Section 311/Section 312," "Notification," or simply "Notice")

San Francisco Planning Code Section 311 and Section 312 describe a neighborhood notification requirement applicable in certain residential district (i.e. Section 311) and commercial districts (i.e. Section 312). Notification is a process generally triggered by new construction of a building, expansion of existing buildings, or certain changes of use.

Notification is usually comprised of three components: a mailing that goes out to surrounding property owners and occupants, a poster that is placed at the subject property, and an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle (the ad is only applicable for certain entitlements). Current Planning staff will process the notifications for you based upon mailing lists that you will provide with the application packet at the intake appointment. The process provides for a 30-day notification period for owners, tenants and neighborhood groups in the vicinity of a proposed project to allow them an opportunity to voice concerns over the nature of a proposal and/or to request a public hearing before the Planning Commission (known as a Discretionary Review) to seek to have the project modified or denied. ... [Display Full Definition]

Planning Commission Hearing

The Planning Commission consists of seven members appointed by the Mayor and the President of the Board of Supervisors to help plan for growth and development in San Francisco. The Commission holds a public hearing each week (also known as a "Commission Meeting") to carry out its duties and advise the Mayor, City Council and City departments on San Francisco's long-range goals, policies and programs on a broad array of issues related to land use, transportation, and neighborhood planning. ... [Display Full Definition]

Planning Department Review of All Applications

The Planning Department reviews applications for Building Permit applications and other Planning Department applications. In regards to Building Permit applications, depending on the scope of your project, you may need to obtain permits from the Building Department, the Fire Department, the Health Department, the State Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or other City agencies. The Planning Department reviews these applications. Additionally, the Planning Department reviews other applications required required in the land use process but not specifically related to Building Permits. ... [Display Full Definition]

Project Review Meeting

A Project Review Meeting is a 1-hour scheduled meeting available to any permit applicant. It provides members of the public and Planning Department staff an opportunity to discuss Code requirements, planning processes and Departmental policies related to a specific proposed project. It allows applicants to get early feedback on potential issues of concern and thus avoid unnecessary or costly work on proposals that are not likely to be approved. ... [Display Full Definition]

Pre-Application Process

The Pre-Application Process is required for any Formula Retail use subject to a Conditional Use Authorization; and for new construction projects and certain alterations located in zoning districts that are subject to Section 311 or 312 Notification. The Pre-Application Process needs to occur prior to the filing of any entitlement. ... [Display Full Definition]

Preliminary Project Assessment (PPA)

This is a process that evaluates moderate to large projects before development applications are filed. A PPA is required for any project that is

  1. creating 7 or more dwelling units, and/or
  2. constructing a new non-residential building or addition of 10,001 square feet or more,
  3. A PPA is now required for changes of use of 25,000 square feet or more.

... [Display Full Definition]


Shadow Analysis (also known as "Proposition K" and "Sunlight Ordinance")

In general, all applications for new construction or additions to existing buildings with a roof height above 40 feet in height must be reviewed to determine whether a shadow might occur. A Shadow Analysis is the process to implement Section 295 of the Planning Code, also known as "Proposition K" and "The Sunlight Ordinance." ... [Display Full Definition]

Sunshine Ordinance

The Sunshine Ordinance is an ordinance to insure easier access to public records and to strengthen the open meeting laws. The Sunshine Ordinance also outlines a procedure for citizens to follow if they do not receive public records they have requested. (The Sunshine Ordinance was adopted by the voters of the City/County of San Francisco in November 1999 and went into effect in January 2000. The City & County of San Francisco already had a Sunshine Ordinance; however, the new one strengthens the previous one.) ... [Display Full Definition]

Temporary Use Authorization

A Temporary Use Authorization permits a specific land use for a limited period of time on a particular parcel. Temporary Use Authorizations are typically not associated with significant construction activity; they authorize such short-term uses as mobile food facilities, seasonal Christmas tree and pumpkin sales, construction trailers, and festivals or exhibitions. A Temporary Use Authorization from the Planning Department is frequently one of a number of City permits required to operate a temporary use. The Fire, Police, and Health Departments, among others, may also require separate permits before such can commence operations. ... [Display Full Definition]

Use (also known as Land Use)

A "use" is a common planning concept. A use is established when land has been declared to be usable for a particular building type or development activity. A simple example of these concepts would be, when a home or residence is built, the "use" of the building would be "Residential" and its construction would only be allowed in a "Residential zoning use district." ... [Display Full Definition]

Variance Hearing

A variance is a request for an exception from the quantitative standards of the Planning Code, such as rear yard, front setback and parking. Certain provisions of the Planning Code, such as height, sign and use requirements, are not variable. The Zoning Administrator hears and makes determinations on variance applications. ... [Display Full Definition]