The Central Role of Planning in California Government

General Plans, mandated by the state and carried out by local counties, cities, and other municipalities, serve as a locality’s ‘constitution'.

PUBLISHED JUN 9, 2024 5:50 P.M.
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Incorporated communities in California must manage local resources and your tax dollars according to a plan.

Incorporated communities in California must manage local resources and your tax dollars according to a plan.   Viktoriya   Shutterstock/standard

Since 1927, California state law stipulates that counties and municipalities must govern according to a General Plan, developed in a public process with citizen participation, which may then be enforced by the courts.

State law further mandates that counties and municipalities establish Planning Agencies to provide technical and administrative functions, and appoint Planning Commissions to consider projects and advise elected bodies on land use decisions within their communities.

General Plans act as the “constitution” of every incorporated community in the state. They enumerate the long-term vision, priorities, goals, objectives and policies informing community governance—especially with regard to land use decisions.

General Plans possess the force of law, and are carried out through zoning, subdivision and other ordinances passed by local elected bodies. Again, local lawmakers are advised by their own planning commissions, with technical assistance provided by their planning agencies. 

The California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is the agency responsible for providing planning functions at the state level. OPR offers counties and municipalities  technical assistance and guidance in developing, maintaining and updating their General Plans in accordance with state law.

OPR also establishes and updates statewide goals that provide a context for planning at the county and municipal level. Famously, in recent years, these include the goal of  providing housing and services for a projected population of 50 million residents by 2050, and the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions to a target level by a target date.

OPR also establishes and updates statewide planning priorities as mandated by state law. The agency goes into some detail to ensure that the state’s long-term vision is reflected in policies on the ground. For example, calling for the promotion of infill development, the preservation of natural and working lands, and efficient development which discourages sprawl and cost to the taxpayer.

General Plan Features

While specific to a county or municipality, General Plans share a number of common features:

Introductory Vision Statement: a succinct statement of local values and an aspirational description of the future community.

Goals and Objectives: the enumeration of broad goals and incremental objectives for achieving the community’s vision.

Policies and Programs: the specific policies guiding development of programs which implement the stated objectives.

Metrics and Targets: indicators with which to measure the progress of plan implementation.

Maps: because communities and land use zones are defined by geographic boundaries, plans make heavy use of maps. 

General Plan Mandatory Elements

State law dictates that General Plans address the following mandatory elements:

Land Use: enumerates the uses and distribution of land for Housing, Open Space, Business, Education and other public and private use categories.

Circulation: describes the location of existing and proposed transportation routes, terminals and facilities.

Housing: an assessment of current and projected housing needs, and policies and programs for provision of adequate housing for all economic segments of the community. By law, the Housing Element must be updated periodically and certified by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD)

Conservation: describes the development, conservation and use of natural resources.

Open Space: describes the policies and programs for long-range conservation of open-space lands.

Noise: identifies noise problems and mitigation strategies.

Safety: describes the resiliency policies and programs protecting the community from geologic, climate, fire, flood and drought threats and hazards.

Environmental Justice: describes policies and programs to lower environmental pollution, increase air quality and enhance public facilities and health in identified disadvantaged communities.

Air Quality: describes policies and programs to reduce impacts to air quality.

General Plan Criteria

In addition to the mandatory elements, the General Plan must also meet certain broad criteria:

Comprehensiveness: the plan must cover the entire planning area of a community, including areas outside the jurisdiction in its “sphere of influence.”

Regional Context: the plan must take into account regional factors such as water and  energy supply, transportation, climate change and air quality.

Consistency: the plan must avoid conflicts between elements, such as expansion of housing without consideration for circulation, noise, etc.

Appropriate Time Frame: while the overall General Plan deals with a long term perspective of 20-30 years, time frames vary for different elements. Housing involves time increments of four to eight years established by HCD, while water, sewer and road systems are designed with 30-50-year life spans.

Equity: the vision, goals and objectives outlined in the plan must be universally applied across all economic segments in the community with the interests of all residents under consideration. 

Public Participation

State law requires counties and municipalities to include the public in their planning processes before elected bodies vote to approve new General Plans and amendments. 

Most communities involve the public through workshops and public hearings. Because planning is mandated by state law, the public can also engage the courts to intervene when either the planning process or the elements within the General Plan fail to live up to their legal requirements.

In some cases, a proposal to amend a General Plan may be put to local voters. Examples include large housing and commercial projects developed on land zoned for agricultural and other uses in El Dorado and Solano Counties. 

Sample General Plans

Learn More

There are a number of online resources available to learn more about General Plans and civic planning.

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