Residential Parking Permit Programs Answering “The Question” in Costa Mesa, Calif.


Residential Parking Permit Programs Answering “The Question” in Costa Mesa, Calif.

“Who should be allowed to park in front of my house?” has been a long-standing question with many answers, depending on whom you ask, and is often contentious. You might hear, “everyone” or “no one” or “just me, of course.” As housing has shifted to a diverse mix of multi-generational, multi-unit, and single-family residences, this question has now become one of equity. With the increase in the number of residents living on any given block, many who own multiple vehicles, who should be allowed to park there when spaces are limited? What about their visitors? What about residents who live on adjacent blocks? And do older policies and business rules created when single-family homes were the only type of dwelling, and the number of vehicles was much smaller in number, still apply? 


The city’s transition away from a manual permit issuance process utilizing physical permits to a technology oriented, license plate-based system, leveraging residents’ vehicle license plates, was a critical step in the program implementation.


In 2016, the State of California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, provided some clarity on this question by publishing her opinion, of “in issuing long-term residential parking permits, local authorities may not distinguish among residents based on the type of dwelling in which they live.” This opinion brought forth the idea that any residence could be eligible for a parking permit on a permit-restricted street, regardless of its dwelling status. Survey results revealed inconsistencies with the 2016 opinion. The City of Costa Mesa began transitioning to a new program:


Over the next three years, the city, made dramatic changes to revolutionize the program to provide accessibility and equity for its residents. The outcome was a comprehensive, end-to-end plan, designed to address all aspects of the program and incorporate extensive community and stakeholder engagement.


As a result of a collaborative effort between the community, stakeholders, city staff, coupled with creative thinking on behalf of the program planning and design, a completely redesigned RPP program emerged, with equity and accessibility as the main concern. The team developed strategies that mitigate parking congestion and enhance community inclusivity. The program now allows for participation for both residents of single-family and multi-family dwellings equally.


Transition to a New Program

The city began this process with extensive community engagement in the initial planning phases. To ensure effective management, the city also developed policies that would limit the number of permits per residence by altering issuance criteria based on the number of drivers in the household rather than the number of vehicles.


Permit Program and Policy Development

Costa Mesa considered many updates to its policies and municipal code to enact the new guidelines for the RPP program, including:


• Permit Maximums: One (1) resident parking permit per eligible driver, based on verification of residence and vehicle registration, and a maximum of four (4) permits per dwelling. 

• Plate-Based Permits: Permits are non-transferable and strictly associated with the vehicle’s license plate number. 

• Guest Parking: Maximum of one hundred (100) guest parking permits per year to each eligible household. Each guest pass is for one-time use only. Staff will consider guest passes for special events on a case-by-case basis. 

• Zoning: Parking permits are valid only for the zone or area in which they are issued.

• Fees and Rates: Implementation of annual resident permit parking fees, including an escalating rate structure and low-cost permits for qualifying low-income residents, with permit fees subject to change on an annual basis. 


During the transition to license plate-based permits, the city decided to “freeze” the current program entirely so that the next steps could be carefully planned and set in motion.


Phased Approach

Under the previous program structure, residences were organized into established neighborhood “zones,” with each zone encompassing block faces of varying sizes and over adjacent streets. Leveraging these existing zones, the city devised a distinctive and creative methodology that empowered residents to make decisions regarding their re-entry into the previously frozen Residential Permit Parking Program.


Considering this, a three-phase system approach was implemented to identify program participation criteria and to help the city better understand the current demand for residential permit parking:

• Phase 1 was identifying existing neighborhood zones that experienced external parking impacts from:

1- Adjacent commercial zones

2- The Orange County Fairgrounds 

3- Neighboring municipalities

4- Nearby educational institutions and recreational facilities

• Phase 2 was identifying previous RPP zones that did not experience external parking impacts. Instead, parking congestion in these zones was caused by internal impacts such as limited parking supply compared to the number of vehicles parked on the streets. 

• Phase 3 is ongoing and consists of identifying streets and areas that have traditionally not implemented any permit restrictions. These areas would need to request entry into the RPP program and meet the new guidelines. 



For Phase 1 residences to requalify for the new permit program, the city determined that 51 percent of the residences in each unique neighborhood zone would need to set up a permit account and purchase at least one parking permit through the new online portal within a pre-defined period. 


In a surprising turn, by allowing residents of the specific zones to dictate program participation, zones with insufficient demand led to the removal of residential permit parking restrictions, making these zones less restrictive and more accessible to the public, achieving one of the main goals of the new program.


There was a total of 40 out of 96 pre-existing zones that requalified for the program, or 42 percent. The reduction in zones and the onset of the self-managed customer portal resulted in significant cost-savings in time and labor for city staff that would otherwise manually approve, issue, and process payments at city hall for permits that used to be free and loosely managed.


Technology-based Enforcement

The recent modifications to the program have also yielded significant advantages for the Costa Mesa Police Department (CMPD). Prior to these changes, CMPD had to conduct manual visual inspections of physical permits to determine a vehicle’s active status within the RPP program. This process was labor-intensive and time-consuming, requiring officers to exit their patrol vehicles to inspect each resident’s vehicle on foot.


To enhance efficiency, CMPD worked to procure and equip four patrol vehicles with externally mounted Genetec License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras to verify residents’ license plates for active permits. 


This synergy between the two systems has empowered CMPD with a robust and highly effective enforcement solution, ensuring that residents can enjoy the benefits of a meticulously devised and implemented parking program.


Community Outreach

To effectively educate and communicate the updated resident permit program initiatives to the public, the city conducted a series of three virtual Community meetings, synchronized with the commencement of each of the three program phases. 


An integral component of these virtual sessions was the incorporation of live question-and-answer (Q&A) sessions. This interactive approach afforded residents the opportunity to delve into specific details and gain a deeper understanding of how the program would impact them. To further enhance transparency and accessibility, the Q&A sessions from each of the three presentations were subsequently made available on the city’s website for public perusal and review.



The City of Costa Mesa’s fearless response to “who should be allowed to park in front of my house?” resulted in recognition by the California Mobility and Parking Association (CMPA) as the 2023 Parking Program of the Year for its landmark approach to rebuilding its RPP program and striving for equity and accessibility. The transition to a modern and technologically advanced program serves as a shining example of a municipality’s capacity to engage in introspective evaluation, strategic planning, and thoughtful consideration of the impacts on its residents when embarking on a new initiative. When other municipalities are tasked with answering their own version of “who should be allowed to park in front of my house?” they need to look no further than the City of Costa Mesa for inspiration.


Anthony Mazeika, Dixon Resources Unlimited, can be reached at

Article contributed by:
Anthony Mazeika, Dixon Resources Unlimited
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