San Rafael Hillside Design Guidelines

Client: City of San Rafael, California

The San Rafael Hillside Design Guidelines are a set of comprehensive design and technical standards to improve design quality in the city's hillside residential neighborhoods. The Guidelines apply to a citywide "overlay district" identified in the San Rafael General Plan as important community resources.

An important distinction is made between the new development standards and qualitative design guidelines. The distinction allows for design flexibility, recognizing the many unique situations that exist in sensitive hillside areas.


The one-year planning process involved close work with a City Council-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee composed of members of the City Council, Planning Commission, Design Review Board and neighborhood association leaders.

Design Standards

The Standards were developed to reduce building height and bulk, and to limit site coverage in sensitive areas. Important elements:

  • New definition of building height. A method of calculating building height from existing grade, including requirements for designs to conform to topography.
  • Maximum floor area. To limit building size on sensitive sites, the gross square footage of new structures is limited to an amount related to site area.
  • Building stepbacks. A limitation on the maximum building envelope regulates excessive building bulk by defining a perimeter "stepback zone".
  • Natural state requirement. A portion of each hillside parcel must remain in its undeveloped natural state. The size of the undeveloped area is based on site slope and size.

Design Guidelines

  • Site design process. Projects must display sensitivity to the natural setting and existing neighborhood development. Documentation of existing natural features and topography are required.
  • Preservation of significant trees. Species, sizes and techniques for preservation are described in detail, including replacement criteria.
  • Hillside grading and drainage. Guidelines minimize grading and preserve existing land forms.
  • Lot configuration, setbacks and building location. Techniques are illustrated to design lots and structures that derive from landforms.
  • Street layout, driveway and parking. Guidelines for road and driveway alignments are established to minimize grading and conform to existing topography.
  • Reduction of building bulk. Design techniques are described to reduce the perceived bulk of buildings so they do not dominate the landscape.
  • Fire resistive construction. Guidelines promote fire resistive materials.
  • Planting. Design principles that emphasize erosion control, fire resistivity and minimal water use are described.
  • Areas of special Environmental Character. Design guidelines for ridgelines, riparian zones and sensitive habitat areas are illustrated.
  • Site lighting. Lighting standards are established to aid safety while minimizing light intrusion into adjacent residences, public rights-of-way and hillside silhouettes.


The San Rafael Hillside Design Guidelines received the National Planning Implementation Award of the American Planning Association, State of California and Northern California awards of the APA.

Project Team

Dan Hillmer, Principal-in-charge.

City of San Rafael: Robert Pendoley, Planning Director. Sheila Delimont, Project Manager.