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San Diego digitizes permitting and licensing to make it easier for entrepreneurs to open a business

The City of San Diego

San Diego, CA

The City of San Diego needed to innovate its permitting and licensing to make it easy for entrepreneurs to grow a small business. By automating the pre-application process, applicants can self-identify the permits they need and get real-time estimates of the cost and complexity of their project requirements.

Topics Covered

Small Business
Customer Service
Process Improvement


Initial: 250 Thousand USD

O&M: 250 Thousand USD


General Fund/Existing Public Funds

Project Status

Operational since 2016

Gov Champion

Economic Development, Mayor's office, Development Services

Problem Addressed

Facing a large uptick in economic development, San Diego's leaders knew they needed to rethink their permitting and licensing processes.

Their current operations were confusing, time-consuming, and burdensome for both applicants and City Hall, resulting in a constant backlog of inquiries that would take municipal staff days — or even weeks — to answer.

The city's economic development director, Erik Caldwell, saw the pain small business owners across the city were feeling while enjoying a slice one day:

"As a research project, I had staff pull every permit Lefty's, my favorite pizza place in San Diego, needed to get to open their second location. That pile of paper is still in my office: It's 1.5 inches thick and took eight hours of discovery time just to gather. Through the process, I realized that we could provide better service for businesses looking to expand or start in San Diego."

To help more entrepreneurs realize their dream businesses, raise customer service levels, deliver an easy-to-use tool that would educate business owners on the requirements and costs of opening or growing a business — while also saving City Hall countless staff hours — city leaders turned to OpenCounter.

Solutions Used

The city added two online portals to its website to make permitting and licensing easier and more convenient for citizens starting a business. 

The City of San Diego added two of OpenCounter's online portals to its website — Business Portal and ZoningCheck — to make it much easier for its citizens to understand not only the costs and requirements of starting a business but how zoning ordinances impact site selection and add complexity to their project requirements.

With ZoningCheck, applicants can find potential locations for their project anywhere in the city without needing to understand dense municipal jargon like occupancy classifications and land use codes. With the portal's intelligent land use search, intuitive zoning maps, and detailed summary pages, applicants can find the information they need and come to City Hall ready to have an informed discussion about their project.

And with OpenCounter's Business Portal, applicants can quickly identify all the permits they need for their project — and what each of those permits will cost. With our automatic permit scoping, applicants move through a series of questions that quickly surface permit requirements for their specific projects, including those triggered by location data, such as environmental overlays and business improvement districts.

The best part? San Diego's business owners can do this from anywhere, on any mobile device, 24/7/365.

And in addition to making the process easier for applicants, this approach to permit discovery saves San Diego's municipal employees tens of thousands of hours every year otherwise spent repeatedly answering that redundant raft of pre-application questions in person, over the phone, or through email.

By digitizing its permitting and licensing operations, the City of San Diego also received a host of new data on development trends. Thanks to real-time information delivered in the administrative dashboard, City Hall can analyze the zoning codes searched most frequently and identify hot spots for economic development.

Based on the success of the ZoningCheck and Business Portal, the city added our Residential Portal to their operations in 2018, to help guide residents through permit discovery for single-family-home projects.



Annual savings of 14,000 hours in staff time — equivalent to the work of six full-time employees


93,437 zoning lookups and 51,481 business permitting projects scoped in just three years, with an average time of five minutes to scope


Greater insight into development trends thanks to real-time admin dashboards


Lowered barriers to starting a small business, so more citizens can be empowered to contribute to their community's economic engine


The ability for anyone to identify the permits their need for a project — from anywhere, at any time, and on any device

Something Unique

Cities looking to transform their customer service, make their community business-friendly, increase operational efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to issue permits to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Who Should Consider

Cities looking to transform their customer service, make their community business-friendly, increase operational efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to issue permits to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Last Updated

Mar 25th, 2022
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