A BRIEF PRIMER ON LAND-USE TERMINOLOGY
A Layperson’s Introduction to Los Angeles Planning and Zoning
By Gerald A. Silver, BA, MA. Ed.D.*
1. General Plan
California State Law requires every city and county to adopt a comprehensive General Plan to guide its future development. The General Plan essentially serves as a “constitution for development” – the document that serves as the foundation for all land use decisions. Every jurisdiction’s General Plan includes seven required “Elements” that are mandated by State law; local governments may adopt additional optional Elements to address local priorities and planning goals.
The City of Los Angeles Citywide General Plan Framework Element establishes the broad overall policy and direction for the entire General Plan. It provides a citywide context and a comprehensive long-range strategy to guide the comprehensive update of the General Plan’s other elements.
The Los Angeles General Plan was approved by the City Planning Commission and adopted by the City Council. The Land Use Element is one of the state-required elements of a City’s General Plan and is required to be updated periodically. The City has the following elements in its General Plan:
• General Plan Framework
• Land Use Element (35 individual Community Plans)
• Air Quality Element
• Transportation Element
• Housing Element
• Infrastructure Systems Element
(garbage, power, way & sewer systems)
• Open Space & Conservation Element
• Noise Element
• Public Facilities & Services Element (libraries, recreation, schools)
• Historic Preservation & Cultural Resources Element
• Safety Element (fire protection, safety, seismic safety)
• Urban Form & Neighborhood Design Element
See http://cityplanning.lacity.org/ Select “General Plan”
2. Community Plans
The City’s 35 Community Plans collectively comprise the Land Use Element of the General Plan. The Planning Department will be preparing in the future an Infrastructure Systems Element, Public Facilities and Services Element and a Historic Preservation and Cultural Resources Element. The Planning Department is updating land use plans for several community plan areas as part of an ongoing program to ensure that these plans effectively guide growth and development in the City’s neighborhoods.
Community Plans include generalized maps that show large community areas, in color that define the general usage in the area, such as high or low density residential, commercial, industrial, etc. The maps are not specific to a given lot, as are the zoning maps. The Community Plans guide the physical development of neighborhoods by establishing the goals and policies for land use.
While the General Plan sets out a long-range vision and guide to future development, the 35 Community Plans provide the specific, neighborhood-level detail, relevant policies and implementation strategies necessary to achieve the General Plan objectives.
The New Community Plans (NCP) encourage sustainable residential, commercial and industrial development while maintaining the unique character of individual communities. Community Plans integrate land use, infrastructure and transportation improvement, direct growth to centers while preserving established residential neighborhoods.
See http://cityplanning.lacity.org/ Select “Community Plans”
3. Specific Plans
Throughout Los Angeles, the City has approved a group of Specific Plans. These are detailed maps that show specific properties, and conditions that apply to all properties in the Specific Plan. Specific Plans over-ride the more general Community Plans. For example, there is a Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan that covers the entire length of Ventura Blvd. It defines allowable Floor Area Ratio (FAR), setbacks, building height. etc. The Specific Plan does not include any specific zoning definitions for properties within the Plan.
The purposes of the Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan is:
A. To assure that an equilibrium is maintained between the transportation infrastructure and land use development in the Corridor and within each separate community of the Ventura-Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan area.
B. To provide for an effective local circulation system of streets and alleys which is minimally impacted by the regional circulation system and reduces conflicts among motorists, pedestrians, and transit riders.
C. To provide building and site design guidelines to promote attractive and harmonious multi-family and commercial development.
D. To assure a balance of commercial land uses in the Specific Plan area that will address the needs of the surrounding communities and greater regional area.
E. To provide a compatible and harmonious relationship between residential and commercial development where commercial areas are contiguous to residential neighborhoods.
F. To preserve and enhance community aesthetics by establishing coordinated and comprehensive standards for signs, buffering, setbacks, lot coverage, and landscaping.
G. To enhance the plan area landscaping by providing guidelines and a process for a coordinated landscaping program of public and private property for the Specific Plan’s communities.
H. To promote an attractive pedestrian environment which will encourage pedestrian activity and reduce traffic congestion.
I. To promote and enhance the distinct character of each of the five Specific Plan communities by establishing design guidelines and community development limitations.
J. To establish guidelines and a process for implementing Charter required amendments, regulatory controls, providing incentives, and funding mechanisms, and enforcement for the systematic execution of the policies and goals of the General Plan within the Specific Plan area.
K. To promote a high level of pedestrian activity in the Pedestrian Oriented Areas by regulating the placement of buildings and structures to accommodate outdoor dining and other ground level retail activity, as well as provide for attractive landscaping.
L. To provide community development limitations based on the community infrastructure’s transportation capacity.
M. To preserve alleys, wherever possible, in the corridor to facilitate traffic flow.
N. To enhance Community Streetscape Plans by encouraging the undergrounding of utilities.
See http://cityplanning.lacity.org/ Select “Community Plans” then Select “Specific Plans”
The City has prepared maps that show the specific zoning on each piece of property in the City. The City’s zoning code and maps define what can be built on that zone. They define building height, lot size, set backs, land uses, and other conditions that apply to each, specific piece of property.
Zoning information can be obtained through the City of Los Angeles Zone Information and Map Access System (ZIMAS). ZIMAS is a tool to find detailed information on any property in the City of Los Angeles. Once you enter ZIMAS, you will find information on property’s zoning designation, hazard zones, County Assessor data, planning cases, etc.
The Planning Department has prepared a detailed summary of all of the zoning regulations in the City. For each zone, the table shows allowable uses, maximum height, required yards, minimum area, minimum lot width and parking required. Once you know the specified zoning for a given piece of property you can check the allowable uses, maximum height, required yards, minimum area, minimum lot width and parking required for that site.
For example a lot designated as R-1 would be assigned as a single family dwelling, with maximum height of 45 ft., 15 ft. minimum rear yard, minimum lot width of 50 ft. and minimum lot size of 5,000 sq. ft., and requires two covered parking spaces per dwelling unit. (See table below)
The Zoning information section of the site also contains the city’s entire Planning and Zoning code for your reference.
Zoning regulates the various physical dimensions of buildings. Together these dimensions define the “building envelope.”
• how tall the building is (height)
• how far from the street or the neighboring lot the building is placed (setbacks or front, side and rear yards)
• how much of the lot is covered by the actual building
(lot coverage, building footprint)
• the amount of square footage in the building compared to the square footage of the lot (floor-area ratio or FAR)
5. Height Districts
The zone specification that is assigned to a given property usually includes a Height District designation. The zone definition not only includes what uses may be allowed on the site, but also the maximum height of the structures that are allowed. The common height districts are 1, 1L, 1VL, 1XL, 2, 3 and 4. The height district specification usually follows the zoning specification and is separated by a hyphen.
For example, a property with a zoning designation of R3-1L means that the property is designated for multiple dwelling residential uses, with a maximum height of 45 ft. A property with a RAS-4 designation would have a no height limit. See table below:
6. Floor area ratio (FAR)
Floor area ratio (FAR) is the ratio of the floor area of a building to the area of the lot on which the building is located. It is a somewhat confusing term that refers to the total bulk or volume of a building. For example, the diagram below illustrates three simple ways that a 1:1 FAR might be reached: one story covering the entire lot, 2 stories covering half of the lot, or 4 stories covering a quarter of the lot all result in the same FAR.
7. “Q” conditions
When the City approves an exception, or a variance for a parcel, it may place specific requirements and conditions on the property. These are called a Permanent (Q) Qualified classification, or just “Q” conditions. They are binding on all future owners of the property.
For example the following “Q” condition is one of many that were placed on the land within Van Nuys Airport:
“No building permit shall be issued for any structure exceeding 10,000 sq. ft. in floor area, unless a complete and detailed plot plan indicating the exterior boundaries of the property, the location of all buildings, driveways, service roads, maintenance areas, access ways, parkway areas, taxiways, enclosing fixtures, landscaping, etc. has been reviewed and approved by the Director of Planning. The Director’s approval may include conditions pursuant to Section 12.24.F of the Zone Code to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the surrounding property and/or neighborhood; to ensure that the structure is compatible with the surrounding properties or neighborhood or to lessen or prevent any detrimental effects upon the surrounding properties or neighborhood or to secure appropriate development in harmony with the objectives of the General Plan. The report shall incorporate any conditions recommended by the Department of Transportation. In preparing the conditions, the Director of Planning or the Director’s designee shall also consider the comments received from the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council.”
8. AB 283 – Zoning Consistency
AB 283 was the bill introduced in the California Legislature resulting in the enactment of California Government Code Section 65860. The law is popularly referred to by its bill number. AB 283 required all zoning to be consistent with its Community Plans. The parcel zone should reflect the Community Plan density designation.
“In the event that a zoning ordinance becomes inconsistent with a general plan by reason of amendment to the plan, or to any element of the plan, the zoning ordinance shall be amended within a reasonable time so that it is consistent with the general plan as amended.”
In Los Angeles, Community Plans were developed with little public input, at sparsely attended meetings, where the public had little or no technical expertise in planning and with minimal consideration for the environmental and infrastructure impacts. The Planning Department has not updated some Community Plans for over a decade. Changes in infrastructure were not adequately considered, and some Community Plans are hopelessly outdated. They allow density that cannot be sustained by the infrastructure.
Nothing precludes a community from reevaluating its Community Plans in light of limited, or unavailable infrastructure. It could amend its plan density downwards toward the more realistic zoning levels. If for example, the Community Plan specified a higher density than the zoning permitted, then the two could be brought into consistency by either a zone change or a Community Plan amendment, subject to appropriate hearings and procedures.
The Planning Department failed to bring some of its parcels into consistency, creating confusion. This opened the door for developers to argue for greater density on inconsistent parcels. Developers almost always argue to increase the assigned zoning, not amend the Community Plan downward to achieve consistency.
9. Specific Plan Exceptions (SPE)
When a developer is unhappy with a given condition or requirement imposed by a Specific Plan, the developer may apply to the Planning Department for an exception to one or more conditions imposed by the Specific Plan. These exceptions are referred to as a Specific Plan Exception (SPE).
Here are examples of SPE requests from the Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan:
a. Pursuant to Section 11.5.7.F of the Municipal Code, a Specific Plan Exception from Section 7.E.1.c.1 of the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan to permit the construction of the proposed wireless telecommunications facility at a height of 90 feet on an existing rooftop, in lieu of the maximum permitted height of 45 feet;
b. Pursuant to 11.5.7.F.1 (f) of the Municipal Code, a Specific Plan Exception for the installation of wireless antennas and associated equipment cabinets on the rooftops of buildings in the C and M Zones on a roadway designated as a scenic highway (Ventura Boulevard) within a specific plan area (Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan).
If a developer is unhappy with a given zone condition on his property the developer may request a zone variance to allow for a minor change in a condition that applies to the parcel. In order for a variance to be granted, “findings” or justifications must be made by the applicant to justify the variance request. The applicant must explain how their project conforms to the following requirements:
a. That the strict application of the provisions of the zoning ordinance would result in practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships inconsistent with the general purposes and intent of the zoning regulations.
b. That there are special circumstances applicable to the subject property such as size, topography, location or surroundings that do not apply generally to other property in the same zone and vicinity.
c. That the variance is necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of a substantial property right or use generally possessed by other property in the same zone and vicinity but which, because of such special circumstances and
practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships is denied to the property in question.
11. Conditional Use Permit (CUP) or (CUB)
A developer may ask for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to permit a usage that is not normally allowed on the site, such as the sale of alcohol (CUB). The applicant may apply for a CUB from the City’s zoning rules to permit the sale of alcohol, but is also required to apply to the State ABC for a liquor license. A property owner may request a CUP to allow parking of vehicles on a parcel that is restricted to residential uses only.
A Conditional Use Permit (CUP) is required for land uses which may need special conditions to ensure compatibility with surrounding land uses. To be approved, a CUP must be consistent with the existing adopted General Plan, including local area and community plans, which reflect the City’s policy regarding land use. Major issues involved with the evaluation of CUP requests include consistency with the General Plan; compatibility with surrounding land uses; conditions to ensure compatibility; land suitability and physical constraints; project design; availability of adequate access, public services, and facilities to serve the development; and potential environmental impacts and mitigation measures.
In order for a CUP or CUB to be granted, “findings” or justifications must be made by the applicant to justify the request:
General Conditional Use
a. That the project will enhance the built environment in the surrounding neighborhood or will perform a function or provide a service that is essential or beneficial to the community, city, or region.
b. That the project’s location, size, height, operations and other significant features will be compatible with and will not adversely affect or further degrade adjacent properties, the surrounding neighborhood, or the public health, welfare, and safety.
a. That the project substantially conforms with the purpose, intent and provisions of the General Plan, the applicable community plan, and any applicable specific plan.
b. Explain how the proposed use will not adversely affect the welfare of the pertinent community.
c. Explain how the approval of the application will not result in or contribute to an undue concentration of such establishments.
d. Explain how the approval of the application will not detrimentally affect nearby residential zones or uses.
12. Housing Density
Housing density or residential density refers to the number of homes per unit of land. It is typically reported in dwelling units per acre. The typical single family neighborhood in Los Angeles is about 5-8 houses per acre.
To see what different housing densities look like, go to:
In the Los Angeles zoning code, density is measured as dwelling units per square feet of land. In the R3 apartment/condominium zone the maximum density is one unit of housing per 800 square feet of land. This is about 54 units/acre.
Maximum Density of Multi-family Residential Zones, City of L.A.
Zone Sq. Ft. of Land/Unit Maximum Housing Density*
R3/RAS 3 800 54 du/ac
R4/RAS 4 400 108 du/ac
R5 200 217 du/ac
*Actual maximum density may be lower due to height or FAR requirements
1 acre = 43,560 sq. ft.
13. SB 1818 – Affordable Housing Incentives – Density Bonus
There is a State Density Bonus law that gives jurisdictions the right to increase density, and allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for setting aside some units for affordable housing. While intended to encourage developers to include affordable housing in their projects in exchange for height allowances, more dwelling units, fewer parking spaces or a host of other options, SB 1818 drew a handful of lawsuits from homeowners. It is generally used by developers as a threat in order to get exceptions in order to build a larger, more dense project than would normally be permitted.
The purpose of the State Density Bonus law is to establish procedures for implementing density bonus requirements, as set forth in California Government Code Sections 65915-65918, and to increase the production of affordable housing, consistent with City policies.
14. Mixed-Use Projects – FAR Bonus
The most basic characteristic of zoning is “use.” Use defines the type of development that can occur in a neighborhood or district. Zoning districts are most commonly referred to by their use, such as single-family or multi-family residential, commercial, industrial or open space. For many years, zoning was primarily used to maintain rigid separation between different land uses — to keep industrial and commercial development away from residential. This emphasis on separating activities has given us the office park, shopping mall, industrial park and residential subdivision.
The General Plan Framework calls for encouraging mixed-use development in walkable districts in areas with good public transit as a way to promote more housing production. Not all land uses are appropriate or desirable for mixed-use development. Los Angeles’ zoning code still separates single-family zones from apartment buildings and keeps heavy industrial uses separate from everything else.
The Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan provides a 0.25:1 FAR bonus for mixed-use projects. A mixed-use project combines office or other commercial uses with a residential use with at least 25% of the total Project floor area as residential and at least 33% of the total Project floor area as commercial.
Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan Floor Area Ratio Limitations:
The following Floor Area Ratios shall apply to Projects within the
Community Commercial Plan Designation, and within the
Regional Commercial Plan Designation west of the San Diego
a. No Project may exceed a maximum Floor Area Ratio of
b. However, an additional Floor Area Ratio of 0.25:1 may be
granted by the Department of City Planning during the
Project Permit Compliance process for a Mixed-Use
Project, pursuant to Section 9.
See: Page 14. http://cityplanning.lacity.org/complan/specplan/pdf/VENTURA.PDF
To Learn More
The Los Angeles Housing Department has an excellent web site that contains a lot of useful information on Los Angeles zoning, planning, traffic, housing, etc., go to:
* Gerald A. Silver, BA, MA, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Business Administration, and author of several dozen college textbooks. He is President of Homeowners of Encino, and served on the Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan Review Board (PRB). He served on the Citizens Advisory Committee that helped craft the Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.