Objective Design Standards


Project Description

The Objective Design Standards have been adopted by ordinance at the February 26, 2024 City Council meeting. This project is now complete; however, the Objective Design Standards are a living document that may be updated in the future through Zoning Code Amendments.

Read the Final Objective Design Standards Ordinance Here

The Objective Design Standards propose to enhance the City's ability to define design preferences for qualifying residential developments and are intended to ensure that qualifying affordable housing can be built in Petaluma, while strengthening community character and furthering community goals. The adopted Objective Design Standards will join the existing Objective Review Standards, such as the Objective Zone Development Standards and Objective Subdivision Standards, to regulate new development and will be incorporated into the Implementing Zoning Ordinance (IZO). The Objective Design Standards create requirements for site and building design including facade articulation and modulation, landscaping, internal circulation, screening, among others. 

Project Details - Objective Design Standards

Zoning: Citywide
File Number: N/A
Applicant: City-Initiated Zoning Amendment

Frequently Asked Questions

Qualifying Residential Project – To address California’s housing crisis, the State has passed a number of laws establishing incentives to support housing development. A qualifying residential project is a project that meets the criteria of one or more of these laws that require certain residential projects (SB 35 and SB 330), typically affordable housing projects, to undergo ministerial review. Certain projects may only be denied approval by local governments if they do not comply with these objective standards or pose a threat to public health and safety.  

Planning Review – Review of a development project application compliance with the City’s Implementing Ordinance, SMART code, and for consistency with other applicable planning documents, such as the City’s General Plan, is referred to as Planning review. Reviews include whether the use is allowable, the size of the structure in comparison to the lot, the number of units per acre, building design, and site design which includes building orientation, fencing, parking, landscaping, lighting, etc.  

Discretionary Review – Review of a proposed development project for compliance with standards and consistency with guidelines that allow a review authority such as a Planning Commission to determine if compliance is achieved. 

Ministerial Review – Review of a proposed development project for compliance with objective standards that are not subject to interpretation by a review authority such as the Planning Commission. 

Housing Accountability Act (HAA), Government Code § 65589.5 – Established in 1982 and recently amended to expand and strengthen provisions as part of overall recognition of the critically low volumes of housing stock in California, the HAA limits local government’s ability to deny, reduce the density of, or make infeasible housing development projects, emergency shelters, or farmworker housing that are consistent with objective local development standards and contribute to meeting housing need. 

SB 35: Streamlined Ministerial Approval Process – Requires a streamlined ministerial approval process for development in localities that have not yet made sufficient progress towards their allocation of the regional housing need. Eligible developments must include a specified level of affordability, be on an infill site, comply with existing residential and mixed-use general plan or zoning provisions, and comply with other requirements such as locational and demolition restrictions. 

SB 330: Housing Crisis Act of 2019 – This recently adopted State law prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting new laws that would have the effect of reducing the legal limit on new housing within their borders, or delay new housing via administrative or other regulatory barriers. Pursuant to SB 330, an eligible project is vested under objective standards in place at the time that an eligible application is submitted. 

AB 2162 Supportive Housing Streamlined Approval Process – Amends Government Code Section 65583, Requirements of Housing Element, and adds Code Section 65650 to require local entities to streamline the approval of housing projects containing a minimum amount of Supportive Housing by providing a ministerial approval process, removing the requirement for CEQA analysis and removing the requirement for Conditional Use Authorization or other similar discretionary entitlements granted by the Planning Commission. 

Objective standards are a broad set of standards used by an agency to regulate new development in a community. They can include “objective zoning standards,” “objective subdivision standards,” and “objective design standards.” Petaluma’s Implementing Zoning Ordinance (IZO) currently contains objective zoning standards and subdivision standards. For more on these standards, click here. The proposed Objective Design Standards will join these existing standards and enhance the City’s ability to define design preferences for qualifying residential projects. 

California Government Code Sections 65913.4 and 66300(a)(7) define “objective design standards” as “standards that: involve no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and are 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 before submittal.” Certain qualifying residential projects may only be denied approval by local governments if they do not comply with these objective standards, which must be verifiable and measurable. 

Objective design standards are intended to make the design requirements that apply to certain qualifying residential projects more predictable and easier to interpret for all stakeholders, including decision-makers, staff, applicants, and members of the public. The purpose of objective design standards is for applicants to know beforehand what requirements apply to a proposed development and for the applicant to be able to design a project that meets those requirements before submitting the project for City review. 

Existing adopted general plans, specific plans, zoning codes, overlay zones, subdivision requirements, landscaping, and other land development regulations may contain objective design standards, which are applicable to qualifying residential development projects.  

The State of California has passed laws that limit the City’s review of certain qualifying residential projects to either a ministerial review process, meaning that if the project complies with all objective standards, it must be approved, or a limited discretionary process which limits the ability to disapprove a project. For example, SB 35 requires that projects with certain percentages of units affordable to very low-income, low-income, or moderate-income households be permitted through a ministerial process if the project complies with objective standards. Additionally, Senate Bill 330 limits the scope of review on some projects to only objective standards, and only allows for disapproval based on the finding that the project would have an adverse impact upon the public health or safety.  

The State is continuing to add new regulations to support affordable housing development, and the City anticipates that there may be additional projects that will qualify for ministerial review. 

California is experiencing a housing crisis. It’s common knowledge that housing supplies in California’s communities are limited, and the cost of housing is unachievable for many who live in California. To address the need for housing, the State is pursuing various strategies to produce affordable, quality housing in all communities. The proposed Objective Design Standards are intended to ensure that qualifying affordable housing can be built in Petaluma that will further these community goals: 

  1. Strengthen Community Character and the Public Realm. Design places that reflect the Petaluma community and contribute to the physical, economic, social, and cultural character.   
  2. Design for People. Emphasize a pedestrian-oriented environment where buildings and public realm design are cohesive and complementary of a diverse range of uses.  
  3. Design Equitable Places. Make spaces that recognize and support residents’ and workers’ activities across age, ability, culture, race, gender, and income.  
  4. Support Connectivity. Design safe, functional, and comfortable multimodal connections between activities that are accessible and easy to navigate by walking, bicycling, and public transit.  
  5. Design for Sustainability. Support sustainable building practices and site design approaches to enhance Petaluma’s resilience and resource stewardship – now and in the future. 

The Objective Design Standards (ODS) only apply to qualifying residential projects that can only be reviewed for compliance with objective standards. Our proposed Objective Design Standards add to our existing standards – they do not remove or modify existing objective standards. Development standards such as density requirements (number of dwelling units per acre), building height restrictions, site/lot coverage, and Floor Area Ratio (amount of building square footage in proportion to site/lot square footage) still apply as required by the City’s General Plan, Implementing Zoning Ordinance, Smart Code, or Building Code 

There should not be conflicts between the Objective Design Standards and Smart Code requirements; however, if there is a design standard that conflicts with a requirement of the Smart Code, the Smart Code will take precedence, provided that the standard in question is an objective standard. 

The City is in the process of updating the General Plan which provides the overarching policy direction for future development in the City of Petaluma. The General Plan update is a lengthy process that involves technical experts, extensive community engagement, and environmental review.  When complete, the General Plan is implemented through updates to the Implementing Zoning Ordinance, where standards for residential development would be added. As the IZO is guided by the General Plan and required by law to be consistent, it is critical to complete the General Plan update before updating the IZO to create new standards.   

Similarly, if the City were to adopt Design Guidelines, which it currently does not have, they would need to be consistent with the General Plan as well.  It would not be cost-effective or productive to create design guidelines before completing the General Plan Update, as they would have to be updated after completing the General Plan and Implementing Zoning Ordinance update. 

The Objective Design Standards must be completed now because they apply to projects that are exempt from the discretionary review process, meaning that there are no standards or applicable design criteria for new structures. If the City does not adopt Objective Design Standards to fill the gap, we could be compelled by the State to approve a housing development that is inconsistent and incompatible with Petaluma.   

If a qualifying project is reviewed under objective standards, it must comply with ALL objective standards, including the Objective Design Standards, unless the project is eligible to request a waiver of certain standards*. If a project applicant does not wish to comply with the Objective Design Standards, they may apply for Site Plan and Architectural Review, which is a discretionary review process. 

* Housing projects that qualify for State Density Bonus are eligible for incentives, concessions, and waivers to/of applicable development standards if they can demonstrate that the proposed housing project could not be developed at the allowed density (units per acre) due to the cost of complying with applicable development standards. Requests for incentives, concessions, and waivers are reviewed by City staff during the required project review process. 

City staff reviewed existing objective and subjective standards in the General Plan, Smart Code, Implementing Zoning Ordinance, Petaluma River Enhancement Plan, and Landscaping and Parking Guidelines for Site Plan and Architecture Review. We also reviewed objective design standards for different cities in the Bay Area, including Los Gatos, Alameda, Milpitas, Palo Alto, and Santa Rosa, for best practices. Information was compiled into a draft set of objective standards unique to Petaluma. During public review, we look forward to working with the design and land use professionals, the community, the Planning Commission, and other stakeholders to ensure that these standards appropriately support the development of affordable housing while maintaining community character, supporting connectivity, building equity, and working towards a sustainable future. 

City staff are preparing for two Planning Commission study sessions in October 2023. A public hearing before the Planning Commission is planned for November 2023. After conducting a public hearing, the Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the City Council to either adopt the Objective Design Standards or direct staff to make modifications before the Council considers the proposed Objective Design Standards. Planning staff anticipate that the proposed Objective Design Standards will be presented to City Council for adoption in early 2024. 

The draft Objective Design Standards will be published in mid-September 2023, and information about how to provide feedback will be provided with the published document 

Project Documents

Staff Contact

Andrew Trippel
Planning Manager
[email protected]

Heather Gurewitz
Senior Planner
[email protected]

Planning Division
11 English Street
Petaluma, CA

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