By Andrew Keatts.

Until now, there wasn’t any objective understanding of the system by which the city decides where and what can be built around San Diego. Discussion around the system has been entirely anecdotal. But after a sustained push from Voice of San Diego, the city has released records from its permitting system. We’re using the newly released data to get solid answers to basic questions, and see what else we can learn about the city in the process.

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It seemed like such a simple question.

How long does it take to get a permit from the city of San Diego?

The answer, though, isn’t simple. And despite developers bemoaning the bureaucratic headache of dealing with City Hall, and political candidates promising to “streamline permitting,” it’s an answer that’s never been readily available.

We’ve begun digging into newly released data from the city’s permitting system to get a better sense of one of local government’s most basic responsibilities.

When it comes to the city’s more complicated permits, it took about nine months to get a project approved in 2013, the most recent year with enough available data to draw a conclusion.

That’s faster than in any of the last 10 years, the time for which records are available.

That doesn’t mean nine months is fast, in the grand scheme of things. Nor is it slow, necessarily. We’d need additional data from the rest of the state to draw that conclusion.

But it is speeding up.

Have Discretionary Times to Approval Changed Over Time?

The chart above shows the typical experience for getting a discretionary permit1, a broad category that includes all requests that require community review, a higher level of technical or environmental review and eventually sign-off from a city official, which can go as high as the City Council.

Not pictured is another class of permits, which represent a huge majority of the work Development Services takes care of.

Most permits the city issues are what we’ll call “over-the-counter permits.” Those come into play when you’re already entitled to build a certain thing on a piece of property, or use the property in a certain way. You just need to demonstrate that your plans comply with those requirements, and have reviewers make sure your plans satisfy certain health and safety code requirements. Prove that and voila, you get a permit.

The permits displayed above, though, are for projects that are either expressly against existing restrictions, or are big and complicated enough that they always need a more thorough review process. It’s called discretionary review.

“On the discretionary side, that’s where we have the chance to really affect change, and where we end up hearing complaints if things get too long,” said David Graham, the city’s deputy chief operating officer in charge of development.

One Paseo, the recently approved megadevelopment in Carmel Valley that will include 600 homes and boatloads of stores, offices and outdoor space? Yeah, that was a discretionary permit. The City Council approved it last week after six years of debate.

Projects requiring discretionary permits aren’t always so big, though. In the coastal communities, you need a discretionary permit to expand a single-family home.

Because of the range of projects that fall under the discretionary umbrella, Jeff Barfield, planning manager for developer RBF Consulting, said determining a typical review time isn’t all that helpful.

“It’s like asking: How much does a car cost?” he said.

But looking at the year-to-year change in approval times is more like asking: How much has a typical household spent on a car over the years?

Developers are getting discretionary permits faster now than they have in the last 10 years. The decline from the peak of the recession — when review times were by far the longest — is extreme, at 43 percent. The city’s improvement is far more modest, though, compared with before the recession, a 14 percent decline.

We’ve also analyzed each type of discretionary permit, and they show the same broad trend: Approval times have fallen dramatically since the recession and are now in line with where they were before it, or slightly better.

There’s no mistaking the trend, even it doesn’t feel like much has changed to developers.

“It feels like they’re keeping it from getting worse,” Barfield said. “But no, it doesn’t feel like things are getting much better.”

Environmental lawyer Cory Briggs, who has often sued the city for inadequate review of projects, meanwhile, doesn’t believe faster review times is necessarily a great achievement, especially because good projects can withstand the delay.

“One person’s delay is another person’s thoughtful and methodical review,” Briggs said. “Developers often think delay is bad, but the community might think it’s thoughtful.”

In either case, the next logical question is what’s driving the overall decline in approval time — and what isn’t. That’s where we’ll pick up.

Damon Crocket provided data analysis for this story.

  1. The middle line is the median approval time for all permits. As in, half the permits took more time and half took less. For the bottom line, 60 percent of permits took longer. And for the top line, 40 percent of permits took longer. Basically, the three lines together show a range of ordinary approval times for a discretionary permit. (For a more in-depth look at how different types of discretionary permits fared over the last 10 years, click here.)

    Since some approval times can take multiple years, not all of the permits in recent years have been completed, and some of them never will be, either because the developer abandons the project or the city rejects it. We used the approval times from 2004 through 2008 to assign a probability that outstanding permits will eventually be approved, and used that to project the total number of approvals for a given year.

    We can’t project how many days an outstanding project will take, but we do know the minimum days it will take, based on our projection of how many will eventually be approved. That allows us to calculate the percentiles shown above — because we know that once approved it will lie above our target percentiles.

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Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.