Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is a Development Approval Process?

4 minute read

A development approval process decides whether or not to allow a proposed development project to proceed with construction. There is plenty of room for interpretation, both legal and political, about what a development approval process can or should entail.

An image of stadium seats at Petco Park in San Diego, with new buildings under construction nearby in the background.

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A development approval process decides whether or not to allow a proposed development project to proceed with construction. The permission to proceed with development is called an entitlement, so a development approval process is also frequently referred to as an entitlement process. Development approval processes vary greatly within and between jurisdictions, so the phrase is used generally to describe all the potential stages of the process required for a proposed development to achieve entitlement.

Within jurisdictions, development approval processes will vary based on a number of factors, for example: the zoning of the parcel intended for the project; land use regulations at the local, state, regional, and federal level; and whether the project is by-right or it requires discretionary approval. The city of San Diego, for example, lists five different development approval processes—one by-right approval process and four discretionary approval processes.

While discretionary approval processes can vary according to local, regional, or state law, they usually involve a review by a zoning board, elected officials, or other government commission. These organizations decide whether or not to grant entitlement for projects that do not conform to existing zoning. By-right development, by comparison, conforms to zoning and building codes, and thus does not require a discretionary development approval process for entitlement.

The city of Los Angeles, as an example of a large jurisdiction, organizes its development approval process in the following stages:

  1. Identify the zoning regulations
  2. Consult with planning staff
  3. Submit application at the public counter
  4. Planning staff reviews application
  5. Decision maker issues a determination
  6. Apply for building permits

The city of Chesapeake, Virginia, as an example of a smaller jurisdiction, organizes its development approvals process in three phases:  

  1. Preliminary Phase
    1. Administrative Plan Process
    2. Public Hearing Process
  2. Plan Approval Phase 
    1. Development Plans
    2. Building Plans
  3. Construction Phase
    1. Handled by the Department of Development and Permits: Building Plans, Building Permits, Inspections, Certificate of Occupancy

In San Diego, Los Angeles, and Chesapeake, entitlement is considered separately from permits. In all three cases, similar to most jurisdictions in the United States, the goal of the development approval process is to determine approval for the development in concept, stopping short of permitting the specific, detailed aspects of a development project. 

...the goal of the development approval process is to determine approval for the development in concept, stopping short of permitting the specific, detailed aspects of a development project. 


Given the existence of multiple layers of land use regulation, all involved parties tend to describe approval processes as prohibitively expensive and excessively time consuming. Developers will sometimes scrap projects that become too expensive while bogged down in an approval process. Members of the public express frustration with the uncertainty created by the inefficiencies of approvals processes. As the legal grounds for a development, the approval process is frequently subject to legal and public controversy. Interest groups and developers, and their lawyers, frequently contest the legality of a project by negotiating the requirements of the development approvals processes. Development opponents might push for a project to undergo extra design review, environmental review, or another round of public feedback, for instance—all of which alter the development approval process.

Many planning reforms, including efforts to entirely rewrite zoning codes, are intended to improve both the process and the outcomes of development approval processes. 

Planning Department Involvement

One of the primary responsibilities of the planning profession is to act as the custodian for the development approval process. Planners working in the public sector produce the long-term plans that determine what and where to build and thus also define the steps in the approvals process necessary for entitlement. After long-term plans are in place, development projects will be considered for approval by planners who review proposed projects for conformity to adopted plans. In other words, planning both sets the ground rules for development approval processes and then act as referees for processes once they are underway.

The development approvals process is therefore where planners have their most conspicuous impact on the theory and practice of public policy. Planners will work on either side of these issues—as public sector employees ensuring the legal conformity of proposed developments and as private sector employees ensuring that proposed projects clear the various hurdles of development approval processes.

Development approvals processes very frequently supply the context for planning controversies—pitting public against private interests and requiring political will to chart a path forward. In many U.S. jurisdictions, permitting approvals are handled by a building or permitting department—not the planning department—and public scrutiny for development projects tends to wane after the entitlement process is complete. 

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