The Planning Department is your first stop in the permitting process. Also known as “Current Planning,” this division of the Planning and Community Development Department reviews all aspects of a project’s land use, which includes zoning, parking, signage, and overall design.

Every business is unique. But the following is a list of the steps to make the process as smooth as possible, so you can get your business off to a great start. City Planners can help you with the nuances and get you on your way. The two options are:

  • Apply Online: For a Planner to review your project and respond: Apply Here
  • In person at the Planning Counter
The Planning Counter is located at 809 Center Street, Room 101, open Monday-Thursday, 7:30-11:30 a.m. and additional hours by appointment or phone
Public parking is available in the lot at Church St. and Chestnut St. For the most up to date information about hours please check the Planning Department website.

    The Zoning Clearance

    Once you’ve found a location—whether it’s a traditional brick and mortar or your kitchen table—you’ll need to visit or the Planning Counter to obtain your Zoning Clearance. The Zoning Clearance is a one-time process, with a one-time fee, that the City uses to ensure your business type is permitted to operate in your chosen location.

    You’ll need your Zoning Clearance before you can get a business license but you can do both of these steps easily online. Ready, set, go.

    How to Get Your Zoning Clearance

    Apply Online: visit to apply. You will be required to create a user account before you can apply.
    Fees:Determined by use type in online application
    Processing Time:Typically a 1 day over-the-counter application unless use requires further research
    Information Needed:Address where you plan to operate your business and the type of business you will be doing

    If you prefer to apply in person, head to the Planning Department, sign in for the Planning Counter and wait for the on-duty planner to become available. The planner will review the Zoning Clearance request and complete the form with you at the counter. Once you’ve paid the fee, the planner will give you a receipt and copy of the Zoning Clearance form to bring to the Finance Department so you can get your business license.

    What type of Zoning Clearance do you need?

    There are two different types of Zoning Clearances:

    • Home Occupation Zoning Clearance is required to operate a business out of your residence. If you’re a consultant or a freelancer providing professional services where you use your residence as your primary office, this is for you.
    • A Non-Home Occupation Zoning Clearance is required to operate a business out of all other non-residential locations for standard commercial locations.

    Home Occupation Zoning Clearance:

    No doubt, some of the greatest companies we know started out in a garage or living room. So when you start out, the city just wants to make sure you won’t have delivery trucks line up outside your house all day, blocking your neighbors’ driveway, or that you won’t be operating a mega manufacturing plant out of your living room. The Home Occupation Zoning Clearance ensures that your business meets the City’s Zoning regulations. The Home Occupation Zoning Clearance is a simple, over-the-counter form where you provide information about your business and acknowledge receipt and understanding of the Home Occupation regulations by signing a Zoning Clearance form. The fee is $137 (current fee, subject to change), but you only pay this once for the life of the business operating in that specific location.

    A Zoning Clearance may not be granted if the property is red-tagged, found to have an illegal dwelling unit, or if other unusual circumstances exist on the property. The planner at the counter will speak with you about these potential issues if they arise and how they can be resolved.

    Non-Home Occupation Zoning Clearance:

    If you are operating your business out of a commercial building, you will need to first visit the Planning Department—before even signing a lease—to ensure that your business type is permitted in that location. Signing a lease before you are confident that you can operate your business can create some headaches and heartache that can be painful and expensive. There are three typical results:

    1. Your business type or “use” is deemed to be “Principally Permitted” in your chosen location—Hurray! You can pass go. Then it’s a simple over-the-counter process to evaluate the use and ensure compliance with the zoning regulations.
    2. Your business type or “use” is found to be not Principally Permitted, but could be permitted with approval of a separate Use Permit when certain conditions are met. The planner at the counter can talk you through the potential processes for approval. There is a separate step to ensure planners and the community are confident that your business meets your location’s zoning and will support the neighborhood (see “Administrative and Special Use Permit” Section below).
    3. Your business type or “use” is determined to be a “Prohibited Use” and is NOT permitted in your chosen location. So you will need to pursue other location options or modify your business use in order to be permitted to conduct business in that location.

    During the Zoning Clearance process, you will provide information about your business and the planner at the counter will review the site to ensure that the use is principally permitted. This also means things such as figuring out that on-site parking is adequate to support the use and making sure you obtain a Design Permit to hang or change a business sign on the property. In a multi-tenant building, you may need to work with the landlord to complete a parking matrix (see Parking section below) for the site so that the Planning Department can ensure that parking has been provided to all uses within the building.

    • The current Zoning Clearance fee for a “new use” (i.e. operating in a newly created space or in a space formerly occupied by a different type of business) is $315 (current fee, subject to change).
    • If your business is taking over a business already permitted in a space or will be operating the same type of business as the previously permitted business in that space within 6 months of them leaving the space, then you will pay a “same use” fee of $81 (current fee, subject to change). This reduced fee also applies to contracted employees, such as individual hairdressers, that operate within previously permitted businesses as well as people working out of coworking spaces.
    • If you are changing ownership but operating the same business, then an $81 fee is charged to obtain this type of Zoning Clearance.
    • If your business requires a Administrative or Special Use Permit you will need to obtain a "no cost" Zoning Clearance to bring to the Finance Department for your business license because the use permit fees will cover the cost of the Zoning Clearance.
    If you have questions about what zoning clearance you might need. Don't hesitate to contact us. We’re always here to help.

    Administrative and Special Use Permits

    Some business types or “uses” are not Principally Permitted and require an extra level of review to ensure that the use is compatible with the zoning for the location you’ve chosen. The City Zoning Ordinance provides a list of uses within each zone district that are

    1. Principally Permitted — Woohoo! Now you just need a Zoning Clearance because your business type is just the type the community is looking for in your location.
    2. Not Principally Permitted — You can make your business type happen but the public and the Zoning Administrator have a chance to provide input for an Administrative Use Permit. This requires Zoning Administrator review and a hearing, which typically takes about 3 months. This timeline is contingent on an initial 30 day completeness review and also includes a required 30 day period for public notice of the meeting.
    3. Not Principally Permitted — Based on some business types you’ll need the approval of a Special Use Permit, which requires Planning Commission review. This typically takes 4 months. This timeline is also contingent on an initial 30 day completeness review and a required 30 day period for public notice of the meeting.

    Meet with Current Planning Staff

    If your business use is not principally permitted but is not prohibited, you’ll need to apply for an Administrative Use Permit or a Special Use Permit.

    Before signing a lease or revising your business plan, a good next step is to meet with Planning staff who can provide you with an overview of the requirements and the issues to address. This may include things like parking, accessibility, traffic impact fees, street improvements, noise complaints, or any other relevant items specific to the site and your particular operations. These issues will likely become conditions that your business will need to meet in order for the permit to be approved, which can also be referred to as a “conditionally permitted use.”

    After meeting with Current Planning to assess the Administrative Use Permit or Special Use Permit process, you’ll need to prepare your application with all of the necessary documents (i.e. site plan, elevations, designs, etc.). Once the Planning Department receives the application they’ll have 30 days to review it and send a letter to let you know if your application is either complete and ready for analysis or incomplete and needing additional information and/or materials. The letter will also let you know of any potential policy conflicts that need to be addressed for city staff to support approval of the application at the the Zoning Administrator hearing or at the Planning Commission.

    If your application is incomplete you will need to make the necessary changes and then resubmit it for another 30 day review period. This is where things can really slow down so it is important to take the time to get all of your questions answered up front so you are sure you are submitting a complete application the first time.

    Once the application is deemed complete and all of the necessary staff members have reviewed the application, your project will be scheduled for a public hearing. The hearing will provide a time for the public to comment on the project and for the approving body to make a decision on the application.

    Boom! You’ve accomplished a lot and now your business can operate under the conditions set in your permit.

    Sign Permit

    A Sign Permit must be obtained prior to the installation of signs on a building or property.
    The following types of signs are allowed with specific regulations for each type:

    • Freestanding Signs
    • Wall Signs
    • Window Signs
    • Projecting Signs
    • Canopy Signs

    Sandwich Board and Moveable Freestanding Signs, Roof Signs, and Wing Signs are not allowed.

    The Downtown area has different requirements for signage which can be found in the City of Santa Cruz Municipal Code 24.12.300.

    To learn more about sign permit requirements and overall process contact the Current Planning Division by email or by phone at 831-420-5416.

    How to Get Your Sign Permit

    Address:Planning Counter, 809 Center Street, Room 101
    Hours:Monday-Thursday, 7:30-11:30 a.m. and additional hours by appointment or phone.
    Fees:$386 (current fee, subject to change)
    Processing Time:Typically a 1 day over-the-counter application unless it requires further review
    Information Needed:Sign plans that show the location of the signs and the design drafted by a licensed sign contractor
    If your signage goes beyond painting such as sign lighting or affixing letters and logos to the face of the building, you may also need to obtain a Building Permit after the Sign Design Permit.

    Please contact the Building Section of the Planning Department for more information at 831-420-5417.


    Businesses are required to provide a certain amount of parking based on their business type or use. If there are multiple businesses operating in a building, Current Planning may request you fill out a Parking Matrix which lists out the different uses in the building and square footage of their space so that staff can determine that there is enough parking for all the different uses. They’ll determine the parking ratios are and calculate how much capacity exists on site.

    To learn more about parking requirements for your business contact the Current Planning Division by email or by phone at 831-420-5416.