Santa Cruz County’s Newly Relaxed Regulations for Commercial Uses

Posted by Kim Tschantz on Mar 18, 2015

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By Kim Tschantz
Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning

This is the third and final of three articles summarizing the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors adoption of several new changes to the County Code that will affect local development and construction. These changes, adopted in March 2012, are for the most part “friendlier” to construction. My brief article last month focused on changes to the County’s new definition of “reconstruction” and why the new definition is significant to builders and property owners. My May 2012 article discussed the significance of the new rules for non-conforming uses and structures. This article will focus on how the County has relaxed new commercial uses.

Commercial Uses Typically Need Use Permits
In the world of development permitting, all permits are classified in two groups─ministerial permits and discretionary permits. A ministerial permit is one that is approved if the plans meet applicable code standards. An Electrical Permit or Building Permit are two good examples. Discretionary permits are approved by an appointed public official, Commission or elected Board using their discretion to decide if the permit should be approved. A Variance or Use Permit are two examples. Many discretionary permit decisions occur in a public hearing. Similar to most cities and counties, the County of Santa Cruz requires commercial property owners to obtain a discretionary Use Permit for new or changing commercial use, ranging from a new retail shop to the expansion of an existing auto dealership. Approval of a Use Permit occurs before the property owner can obtain a Building Permit for the new or renovated building.

The approved Use Permit typically contains a list of conditions the property owner and business owner must comply with both during construction and after construction during the life of the use. The purpose of permit conditions is to ensure the operation and maintenance of the commercial use will be in harmony with the community. Conditions ensuring business uses have adequate parking, properly functioning drainage systems and noise controls to minimize disturbance to nearby properties are fairly standard. “Use Permit” is the generically used term for a permit allowing a “special” or “conditional” land use where the decision-maker has the discretionary right to determine if the permit should be approved; and if so, what type of conditions should be included in the permit. Santa Cruz County uses the term “Commercial Development Permit” for Use Permits granted to commercial uses. In making these decisions, local decision-makers continually struggle with how much regulation of commercial uses is appropriate.

How Have Regulations Changed for Commercial Uses?

The changes for commercial uses made in March 2012 can be grouped into three areas: 

  • More discretionary reviews and decisions will be made at the administrative level rather than in public hearing. These are called level 4 project reviews.
  • Expands the simple commercial changes of use process. These are called level 1 project reviews.
  • Parking standards for all commercial use have been relaxed.

The relaxed parking standards are the most important of the three changes; but let’s look at the first two changes before discussing the new commercial parking requirements. The first change allows new commercial uses with floor areas up to 5,000 square feet to be permitted administratively by County Planning Department staff, rather than in public hearing. This substantially reduces the time and money necessary for approval, as compared to a discretionary permit approved in public hearing. Anyone not happy with an outcome of a level 4 decision can appeal the administrative decision to a public hearing venue, but appeals are only made in a very few instances, in part, because of a $750 appeal fee associated with level 4 appeals.

A simple change of use from one type of commercial use to another, that does not result in an intensification (e.g. generate more traffic or parking demand, etc.) can now be approved in all six Town Plan areas with a simple over-the-counter, level 1, permit that takes about one week to process. Typically, a level 1 change of use costs an applicant less than $500. The Town Plan areas are the commercial centers of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Felton, Soquel, Seacliff Beach and Aptos Village. Previously, this benefit was only possible within the three Town Plan areas in the San Lorenzo Valley. The key here is to know the boundaries of the Town Plan areas and to have a new business use that will not generate impacts above and beyond what occurred with the previous use. A new business with more intensification (new impacts) will put the applicant in the level 4 or higher permit category. This new rule applies in all commercial zoning districts, except the “C-4” (Heavy Commercial/Light Industrial) zone, which is the zone district where you will find auto dealerships, auto repair, boat storage and plumbing and sheet metal shops.

Now for four major changes related to parking. First, a commercial use will no longer be considered non-conforming just because it doesn’t meet today’s parking standards. Previously, a commercial use lacking adequate parking spaces was considered a non-conforming use and any changes to the building required a new Use (Commercial Development) Permit due to the lack of parking spaces. This is no longer the case. Second, when new parking is required, it is only applied to the newly expanded or renovated floor area; not the entire building as was previously required. Third, the threshold for triggering new parking requirements only comes into play when the new or expanded use would generate a parking demand for 10% or more additional parking spaces and, at least, two more spaces. Previously, the County had a substantially lower threshold for requiring additional parking. This translates into potentially substantial savings to commercial owners when making changes to their buildings. And fourth, the parking standards for the required number of parking spaces for different types of commercial uses have been revised. In most cases, less parking spaces are now required. For example, the County’s parking standard for retail and offices has been reduced from 1 space/200 sq. ft. to 1 space/300 sq. ft. of the building’s floor area. Again, this translates to less overhead expense for the commercial property owner.

Why Should You Care?
These changes represent how the County is currently addressing “the struggle” on how much to regulate commercial uses through the land use permit process. This is a positive or a negative change depending on your point of view. On one hand, these changes assist all commercial business owners, large and small, in making physical changes with less time and expense with both permitting and relaxed parking requirements. Another viewpoint is the new regulations allow more commercial uses to be approved without public input and with less parking; thereby limiting public participation and pushing some patrons to park on other properties. Regardless of you being a commercial land owner or not, it’s important to note that these new regulations, along with the others adopted on March 20, 2012 represent a new direction of County leaders to relax some important requirements in the permitting process for the benefit of permit applicants. Will this new direction foster more permitting and construction? Only time will tell. If you want to understand more about these changes to the County Code, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or through my Contact Page at

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