Objective Residential Design and Development Standards

In recent years, the State has enacted several new laws to increase housing supply and affordability and reduce obstacles to housing production. As a part of this effort, State law (Government Code Section 65589.5, SB 35, SB 330) has made it more difficult for cities and counties to deny or decrease densities of affordable or market-rate multi-family housing projects unless the projects fail to meet clear and objective standards established in the general plan, zoning code, specific plan, or design manual. 

State mandates present an opportunity for cities and counties to revisit existing design guidelines, convert any subjective guidelines to design standards, and create objective residential design and development standards that expedite the application and design review processes. 

An “objective” standard is one that involves no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and is verifiable by reference to criteria available and known to both an applicant and the public official. Many design standards, however, are “subjective” and require personal interpretation of their meaning and application. This interpretation, in turn, can lead to a lengthy project review and approval process. The intent of new State housing law is to streamline the review process for multi-family residential projects to increase housing production and decrease housing costs.

Objective means involving no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and being uniformly verifiable by reference to an external and uniform benchmark or criterion available and knowable by both the development applicant or proponent and the public official. (Government Code Section 65589.5, subdivision, (h)(2)(B)) 

While zoning codes typically have objective standards in the form of setbacks, heights, etc., many jurisdictions have also relied on more subjective tools such as design guidelines or generalized zoning requirements to achieve overall compatibility and a preferred aesthetic. These can no longer be enforced, thereby necessitating the need for new or modified objective regulations. The incorporation of objective standards into local codes should result in streamlined review processes that facilitate housing production goals. The development of objective standards is, therefore, one of the most critical updates that a local jurisdiction can undertake to facilitate housing and ensure that future development achieves desired community goals.

Design-related requirements placed on residential projects can often be the result of subjective interpretation on the part of decision-makers. This can lead to uncertainty for project applicants, lengthy review periods, and conditions of approval that can increase project costs, sometimes to the point of making them infeasible. Design review has historically been based on design guidelines, which are subject to broad interpretation and personal opinions, creating uncertainty with residential applicants about what is expected for their project. In many cases, design review can result in reduced project densities, leading to increasing per-dwelling unit costs. The State Legislature viewed the local design review process as an impediment to housing production and affordability, particularly for affordable housing projects, and passed legislation, which the Governor signed, requiring any design-related requirements for certain residential project be in the form of objective standards, and not subjective guidelines.

Many cities and counties do not impose design-related approval conditions on residential development projects. For those communities, no change in their application review process is needed. Cities and counties that want to continue to impose design requirements on residential projects have a broad range of choices as to how they can address the law’s requirements. Typically, existing design guidelines can be converted to design standards by modifying subjective language to objective language. Typical conditions of approval can also be refined to be objective, consistent standards.

Another objective of State housing law is to encourage more multifamily housing development to be approved through a ministerial review process. Once objective design and development standards are established, development application review could be limited to confirming compliance with the standards. No public hearing or discretionary approval would be required. 

For communities that want to regulate multifamily residential project design, adopting objective design standards presents an opportunity for interested residents and decision-makers to prepare, review, and agree on standards that represent the community character and quality. There are a broad range of topics that can be addressed as objective design standards.

Design limitations and flexibility. Objective design standards should be tailored at the local level to ensure that by-right development fits with the existing character of the surrounding community. However, not all subjective design guidelines can be made into objective design standards. It is important to recognize that objective design standards can help prevent bad design but cannot necessarily ensure good design. When developing objective design standards, a jurisdiction must balance the need for design control with flexibility and creativity, keeping in mind that especially in larger jurisdictions, an overly prescriptive or “one size fits all” set of objective design standards could result in monotony and repetitive design. Each jurisdiction should consider which topics are the most important to regulate through objective standards and which topics to remain silent on to allow creativity and flexibility. Alternatively, where flexibility is needed or desired, standards can incorporate a list or menu of potential options to meet the requirement.

Interim approach where resources are limited. Given recent State legislation, one of the best practices in the near term is to adopt interim objective design standards for residential and mixed-use developments until there are sufficient funding or staff resources to adopt more comprehensive standards. The adoption of interim standards also allows for a “testing” period so that the jurisdictions can see what is missing, what is effective, and what needs to be clarified, revised, or eliminated. It also provides an opportunity to learn from other jurisdictions. Another consideration is to phase update efforts (e.g., focusing initially on objective standards for the most frequently seen development types) rather than trying to solve all needs at once 

Longer-term approaches where resources are available. When funding or staff resources permit, develop a set of objective design standards for all residential development types that reflect community values and needs. Keep in mind that an overly prescriptive or “one size fits all” set of objective design standards could result in monotony and repetitive design. As such, communities may wish to adopt design standards that address various housing types, mixed-use developments, non-residential areas, downtowns, historic districts, or cohesive neighborhoods. A form-based code approach that is tied to distinct areas of a city or town may be best suited to achieve this objective.

Survey Results

The survey of Valley city and county planners asked three questions relevant to objective residential design and development standards. A summary of the questions and the 41 responses is below.

Zoning code updates for streamlined review and objective residential design and development standards. When asked about zoning code compliance, 33 participants responded. Six have updated the zoning code to include objective residential design and development standards and nine are undertaking an update; three have updated the zoning code for SB 35/streamlined review and 11 are in the process of that update.  

By-right product types. Participants were asked to indicate whether a range of product types were allowed by-right in residential zones. More than 70 percent indicated that ADUs and JADUs were allowed by-right in residential zones. By contrast, 36 percent allow live/ work, 18 percent allow duplex and triplex, 15 percent allow fourplex, and 21 percent allow cottage courts/bungalow product types. 

Technical assistance. Participants were asked to rate several topics on a seven-point scale based on how likely it would be that their jurisdiction would need technical assistance on that topic. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents believed it likely they would require technical assistance on the topics of objective residential design and development standards and expedited processing.

Stakeholder Interviews

Issues. Stakeholders expressed that the high cost of construction materials, as well as permitting and fees, has made it difficult to build more affordable homes, and believe there is a lack of incentives from local jurisdictions and the State. Four MPO Directors (Stanislaus, Merced, Tulare, San Joaquin) noted limited housing inventory as an issue across all housing types. The San Joaquin MPO Director noted a particular issue in the lack of availability of multi-family housing.

Challenges. The Stanislaus and Tulare MPO Directors identified delays associated with permitting housing projects as an impediment.

Successes. Stakeholders thought that updates to development and zoning codes are critical to increasing housing supply and affordability. Many codes discourage affordable housing types, but updated codes tend to permit these housing types “by-right.” MPO Directors observed that some local jurisdictions (e.g., Modesto, Turlock, Fresno) have been very successful at streamlining permitting processes to expedite housing construction.

Opportunities. Stakeholders and MPO Directors see opportunity in streamlined zoning and plan permit application processes. MPO Directors noted that some Valley jurisdictions are exploring ways to streamline project approvals.

Relevant State Law 

Senate Bill 35 (Government Code Section 65913.4), which went into effect Jan. 1, 2018, was part of a comprehensive bill package aimed at addressing the State’s housing shortage and high costs. SB 35 requires a streamlined ministerial approval process for multi-family residential developments in jurisdictions that have not yet made sufficient progress toward meeting their regional housing need allocation (RHNA). Included in the streamlining process, these cities and counties are required to establish objective design standards for multi-family residential development. 

The Housing Accountability Act (HAA) (Government Code Section 65589.5), establishes the State’s overarching policy that a local government may not deny, reduce the density of, or make infeasible affordable or market-rate housing development projects, emergency shelters, or farmworker housing that are consistent with objective local development standards. This provides developers more certainty about the standards, conditions, and policies that apply to their projects. Local governments that deny a project due to subjective standards (e.g., standards that are not objective) could be in violation of the HAA.

Senate Bill 167 and Assembly Bill 678. These bills strengthened the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) by increasing the documentation necessary and the standard of proof required for a local agency to legally defend its denial of low- to moderate-income housing development projects.

Senate Bill 330 (“Housing Crisis Act of 2019) went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The bill establishes regulations that sunset on Jan. 1, 2025, as a means to address housing conditions (“crisis”) in the state. During this period, cities and counties in urban areas, are prohibited from rezoning or imposing new development standards that would reduce capacity for housing or adopting new design standards that are not objective. The bill also defined previously undefined terms such as “objective standards” and “complete application” and set forth vesting rights for projects that use a new pre-application process. 


California Department of Housing and Community Development, SB 35 Streamlined Ministerial Approval Process Guidelines. 

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Housing Accountability Act Technical Assistance Memo. Housing Accountability Act Technical Assistance Memo.  

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Objective Design Standards – Approaches and Considerations

Opticos Design, How to Get By-Right Zoning Right (June 4, 2019). 

League of California Cities, Navigating Housing Development in the New Era (May 2019).

Madera County, Objective Design and Development Standards Memo


County of Marin. Objective Design and Development Standards.

City of Gilroy. https://www.cityofgilroy.org/905/Objective-Design-Standards   

City of Walnut Creek. Objective Standards Checklist for Single Family Homes.

City of Fremont. Citywide Design Guidelines. 

City of Fremont. Multi-Family Design Guidelines.

City of Los Altos. Objective Design Standards.

Example Objective Design and Development Standard Topics

  • Site Design
      1. Massing
        1. Adjacent to residential uses
        2. Adjacent to open space, park, or community facility
      2. Height
        1. Adjacent to residential uses
        2. Opposite residential uses
      3. Orientation
      4. Fenestration
      5. Alignment of features
      6. Public improvements 
  • Building Design
      1. Articulation
      2. Variation 
        1. By elevation
        2. Between buildings within a single development
      3. Building entries
      4. Base, middle, and cap
      5. Street-facing façade transparency
      6. Wall modulation 
      7. Roof Type
      8. Roof Pitch
      9. Roof Form 
        1. Articulation
        2. Alternative energy compatible
      10. Windows
      11. Air, light, and privacy
      12. Architectural details
        1. Awnings
        2. Balconies
        3. Eaves
        4. Porches
        5. Railings
        6. Exterior stairways
      13. Personal storage areas
      14. Sustainable design 
  • Materials
      1. Primary building materials
        1. Disallowed primary materials
      2. Secondary and accent materials
        1. Disallowed secondary and accent materials
      3. Roofing materials
      4. Color and texture
      5. Windows and doors
      6. Gutters and downspouts
      7. Railings
  • Connectivity and Parking
      1. Vehicular Circulation 
        1. Access points
          1. Quantity and interconnectivity
          2. Location
          3. Entryway accent materials requirement (i.e., require 30% of entry roadway to be brick)
        2. Parking 
          1. Location
          2. Screening
          3. Landscaping/shade 
            1. Solar facility exclusion (consider)
      2. Pedestrian/Bicycle circulation
        1. Access points
        2. Connections to buildings/amenities
        3. Bike parking
          1. Location
          2. Required amenities
  • Open Space and Common Areas
      1. Space requirement
      2. Location
      3. Amenities
      4. Safety (CPTED)
  • Private Open Space Areas
      1. Space requirement
        1. Type of space required
        2. Disallowed uses
      2. Location
      3. Size requirement (sf requirement)
      4. Design
  • Landscaping
      1. Space requirements (e.g., percent of non-building area)
      2. Design
      3. Plant selection
        1. Plant and groundcover selection (consistent with WELO requirements)
        2. Approved street trees
      4. Conservation
        1. Water saving technology
        2. Existing mature trees, creeks, etc. 
  • Lighting Design
      1. Entryways
        1. Development gateways
        2. Building and unit entryways
      2. Pedestrian pathways
      3. Parking areas
        1. Vehicular parking
        2. Bike parking
      4. Open space areas
      5. Signs
  • Fences and Walls
      1. Location
      2. Materials
        1. Fences
        2. Retaining walls
        3. Sound walls
      3. Disallowed materials
  • Signs Design
      1. Gateway signs
        1. Size restrictions
        2. Readability
        3. Location
        4. Materials
      2. Directional signs
        1. Vehicular circulation
        2. Pedestrian circulation
      3. Building and amenity identification signs
      4. Unit identifiers
  • Utilities and Service Areas 
    1. Utilities
    2. Location
    3. Undergrounding
    4. Screening
    1. Refuse
      1. Enclosure requirement
      2. Enclosure construction materials
      3. Location
      4. Access requirement
      5. Screening
    2. Mail and delivery areas (design only)