Santa Cruz County’s New Definition of “Reconstruction”

Posted by Kim Tschantz on Mar 18, 2015

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By Kim Tschantz, Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning

This is the second of three articles summarizing the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors adoption of several new changes to the County Code that will affect development and construction. These changes, which were adopted in March 2012, are for the most part “friendlier” to construction. My brief article last month focused on changes to the County’s rules about “non-conforming uses and structures”. This article will focus on how the County defines reconstruction of a structure and why that may be important for you.
The Term “Reconstruction” as Used in the Regulatory World.

Building and Zoning regulations of most local jurisdictions, like County of Santa Cruz, define a major reconstruction differently than a remodel and have more stringent requirements for reconstructions than for remodels. This is based on the idea that since reconstruction is typically partial replacement or entire replacement of an existing structure, it should follow regulations similar to those for construction of whole new buildings. Until March, Santa Cruz County Planning, like many other localities, used the “altered wall” method to determine if a building project was/was not reconstruction of a structure. Under this method if more than 50% of the existing exterior walls or foundation were altered, it was “reconstruction”. The County’s new rules trade in the old “altered wall” method for the new “whole structure” method for projects undergoing zoning plan check. Under the new approach, reconstruction will be based on looking at alteration of the major structural components of the structure, which includes the foundation, floor framing, exterior wall framing and roof framing.” Only when 65% of these total components are altered will County planners call the project “reconstruction”. If it’s under 65%, then it’s just a remodel.
Is it reconstruction or just a remodel?

The Existing Term for “Reconstruction” in the Building Division Will not Change The Building Division arm of Santa Cruz County Planning has always used another definition for “reconstruction” from that used by zoning and zoning plan checkers, and this will continue. For building plan check, a project is considered “reconstruction” only when all exterior walls are removed and there is nothing left but the foundation. Before you start laughing (or yelling!) at the County for having two definitions for the same word, read the next section, and you’ll see how this actually benefits you.

Why Should Builders Care?

For zoning plan check, a project involving “reconstruction” subjects the builder to more requirements than the more simple remodel or addition in the following ways: The work must be designed to meet all current zoning standards, such as lot coverage, setbacks and building height; A geologic report can be required, if County Planning staff think one is necessary; and “Reconstruction” of non-conforming structures must get an approved Use Permit through public hearing before applying for a Building Permit.
We believe that the new “whole structure” method will result in fewer building projects being considered reconstruction projects. Another more builder-friendly change is that the new regulations exempt any structural alteration work needed to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements or for federal standards for rehabilitation of historical structures from the calculations used to determine “reconstruction”. For building plan check, a complete tear down of the structure makes it a “reconstruction” project. In that case, all current fire codes, including the installation of a fire sprinkler system, are required. Fire districts will sometimes also require improvement of the driveway access, including a new fire truck turn-around area near the end of the driveway to meet current fire safety standards for reconstructed buildings. If building plan check had also adopted the new zoning definition for “reconstruction”, compliance with current fire standards would apply to more projects. So this is one instance where two definitions of the same term actually save homeowners and commercial property owners substantial money.

It’s important to remember that at Santa Cruz County Planning, zoning plan check and building plan check use the term “reconstruction” differently. Reconstruction in the eyes of a building plan checker means the plans will be routed to the area fire district and the fire agency will view the project just like a new structure. Reconstruction in the eyes of the zoning plan checker is based on the new “whole structure method” and reconstructed buildings in the zoning sense require projects to conform to today’s zoning rules and an expensive geologic report. In addition, a lengthy Use Permit process will also be required for some “reconstructed” buildings. However, the new “whole structure method”, which determines whether a projects falls into the “reconstruction” category, will result in significantly less projects being called “reconstruction” by Santa Cruz County planners than have previously occurred. If you want to understand more about these changes to the Code, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or through my Contact Page at

Next month: The New Rules for Commercial Uses.

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