Approval Process with a Planning Commission or Design Review Committee

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

If you build a new home or a significant remodel/addition to your existing home anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is likely that your City, Town or County will require the design to be reviewed and approved by a Planning Commission or Design Review Committee.


I recently assisted a client in the Town of Los Gatos in gaining approval from the Planning Commission for their home which would be the largest home on their street. The Planning Staff initially recommended denial of our design. But since we were conscientious about the neighbors, chose a design style that fit with the neighborhood, and complied to all zoning regulations, the Planning Commission overruled the Planning Staff report and approved our project.


Yes, it is possible that what you have as a dream will not be allowed to be built in your community. Consulting with a local design professional about what your city will allow should be done at the inception of your project so that you don’t waste time designing an unbuildable dream.


Jurisdictions have rules and standards about when a project will be reviewed by a commission or committee, but those rules are often written flexible enough so that the staff at the jurisdiction can make a their own decision about how your project will be reviewed.

This is one reason why it is important to work with an architect and one that has had the experience with working with your city or region you are located. This architect may already have insights into the people that will be reviewing your project and can guide you through the process letting you know whether your ideas for your home will be able to be approved in your city.


Here is a list of items to keep in mind during your design process that will help you gain approvals from your area’s Design Review Committee or Planning Commission:

1) Know your neighbors and share your design plans with them. Keep their privacy and their views in mind when designing your home. In some cities, an unhappy neighbor can be the difference between approval and denial of your project. If your neighbors are in support of your project, see if they will write a letter for you.


2) Be able to communicate (either you or your architect) the specific design style of your home. The acceptable resource for this language for most jurisdictions in the SF Bay Area is “A Field Guild to American Homes” by Virginia & Lee McAllester. Tell the reviewer how your design matches this style and fits with your neighborhood.


3) Don’t be loose and free with the Zoning Regulations, Design Standards or other restrictions and regulations in your area. Follow the regulations and don’t stray from any part unless you have a very convincing reason to stray from those standards.


4) Share with the commission or committee your story about why you are designing this home the way you are. The reviewers are human, too and a good origin story can sometimes sway the hearts of the group.


5) Part of your story should be about how your new home or significant addition will contribute favorably to your neighborhood.


6) Be courteous and kind to planning staff, commissioners, and department heads in your jurisdiction even when they do not make decisions in your favor. I’ve seen people scream and threaten staff and then watch their project linger in purgatory for years until the applicant pulls the application. You will never get anywhere with a project if you loose your cool.


If you have any questions regarding your project or would like to meet with us to see if we’d be a good fit to design your new home, please contact us. Our job is to “Realize Your Vision” with your new home.

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