Editor’s note: The Daily Press is launching a new weekly series, Primer. Each Saturday, our reporters will explain an institution, law, issue or trend that impacts Santa Monica. To suggest a topic, email editor@smdp.com.

Most residents zone out when they are forced to discuss zoning. It’s an arcane topic with its own language of acronyms and abbreviations that can make discussions of even simple concepts mind-boggling.

But zoning decides where and how you can live, what you can buy and do, and how you get around your city — and when zoning discussions inevitably affect you, it’s vital that you know how to express what you want to see in your neighborhood. Below, you’ll find a glossary of common zoning terms used in city planning.


The activities and purposes permitted on land under a city’s zoning ordinance. Larger use categories include residential, commercial and industrial, while smaller use categories refer to restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools. The term “mixed-use” refers to a building that incorporates more than one use and is most commonly used to describe an apartment building that incorporates space for commercial uses.

Conditional Use Permit (CUP):

A permit the city grants a business to operate under certain conditions. A CUP ensures that a business is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood and its conditions are subject to enforcement. For example, a bar might only be allowed to open in a given area if it obtains a CUP, which might involve negotiating its hours of business, beverage menu and physical design with the city.


A departure from the zoning ordinance that the city may grant a developer or property owner. Developers ask for variances to resolve specific concerns that arise from a project.

Parking requirements:

Parking requirements are calculated by the floor area of a structure and its use category. In Santa Monica, housing developers are required to provide zero to two parking spots per housing unit, depending on how close the building is to public transportation. Commercial developers calculate parking requirements based on floor area and proximity to transit.

Setbacks and stepbacks:

A setback is the distance the exterior walls of a structure must be set back from the edge of the sidewalk or street, and a stepback is how far the upper stories of a structure must be pushed back from the lower stories. Cities require larger setbacks and stepbacks in single-family neighborhoods because residents usually desire a certain amount of space between homes to maintain privacy and sunlight.

Parcel coverage:

The ratio of the total footprint of all structures on a parcel to the total area of the parcel, typically expressed as a percentage. For example, a house must have room for a yard but the specific amount varies by size.

Floor Area Ratio (FAR):

The ratio of a structure’s total floor area — which includes the floor area of each story of the building — to the size of its parcel. The higher the allowable FAR of a building, the more units of housing can be built. Multifamily developers typically seek higher FAR in order to build more units and therefore turn a higher profit.

Residential density:

The number of homes per acre of land in a given area. Zoning measures that increase or decrease potential residential density — such as changes to allowable FAR — are often called upzoning or downzoning.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU):

Accessory dwelling units are small homes that are built on the same lot as an existing house. They may be freestanding, share a wall with the main house or be converted from a garage or basement, but they must have a door leading outside. Property owners may build ADUs to house family members or rent them out for extra income. Santa Monica, like many other cities in California that don’t have enough housing to meet demand, has incentivized homeowners to build ADUs because they add housing to neighborhoods without drastically changing their character.

Single-Room Occupancy (SRO):

Single-room occupancy units are small, furnished single rooms that are often rented to low-income individuals. SRO buildings may include shared cooking or bathroom facilities.

Single-Unit Dwelling (SUD):

Single-unit dwellings, i.e. single-family homes.

Multi-Unit Dwellings (MUD):

Multi-unit dwellings, i.e. apartment buildings and condominiums.


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