Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is an Entitlement?

3 minute read

In the context of planning and development, an entitlement is the legal agreement between a government and a landowner to allow a proposed development.

Single-Family Housing Construction

Irina Mos / Shutterstock

The meaning of the word entitlement can vary widely depending on the context. While some planning and development terms can vary within the field because of subjectivity or subtlety (e.g., gentrification and suburb), the meaning of the word entitlement depends entirely on contexts from outside of the world of planning and development. In one context, for example, entitlement refers to a personality trait common among privileged individuals. In another context, entitlement describes Social Security, Medicare, or other government programs (though the usefulness of the word in the latter context is subject to some debate in the mainstream media).   

In the world of planning and development, entitlement is required to proceed with a development, so there is little room for misunderstanding the term: a development either has an entitlement, or it doesn't. The process by which a project achieves entitlement can vary widely by jurisdiction and development. In some cases, a development will qualify for entitlement by-right. In other cases, a development proposal will be subject to a discretionary approval process. Regardless of any potential procedural differences, the goal of every development approval process is to determine whether or not to grant a development proposal the entitlement it requires. In fact, development approval processes are frequently referred to as entitlement processes.

Entitlements are required in several scenarios, depending on differences, if any, between the development proposal and the local zoning code, land use plan, building codes, or environmental law. Thus, entitlements are directly related to some of the most commonly used terms in planning jargon: Rezonings, conditional use permits, or variances might be required for an entitlement, for example. Conversely, a by-right development is granted an entitlement without having to undertake a discretionary review process or acquire any special permissions. 

Buildings aren't the only kind of development to require an entitlement to proceed. Infrastructure projects, like roads and electric utilities, require entitlements as well.

To understand the use of entitlement in practice in contemporary planning and development climate, it's important to note that landowners and developers frequently buy land as an opportunity to pursue an entitlement—selling the property to the highest bidder once an entitlement for a lucrative development is in place and before commencing with construction. Acquiring unentitled land is a financial risk, given the political and legal challenges of development approval processes, but the payoff can be so lucrative that many entitlements are sought for the sole purpose of selling the land with the new entitlement in place.

Finally, it's critical to note than entitlements cannot be equated with permits. The latter are acquired through separate processes and apply to potentially numerous aspects of a development. The entitlement represents the overarching legal approval to proceed with a development project.

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