General Plan Basics

Every city and county in California must have a general plan, which is the local government’s long-term framework or “constitution” for future development. The general plan represents the community’s view of its future and expresses the community’s development goals. The general plan contains the goals and polices upon which the city council and planning commission will base their land use decisions. California State law requires that each city adopt a general plan “for the physical development of the city and any land outside its boundaries that bears relation to its planning.” Typically, a general plan is designed to address the issues facing the county for the next 15-20 years.

The general plan is presented as a collection of “topical elements,” of which seven are mandatory. The seven State-mandated elements are: Land Use, Circulation, Housing, Conservation, Open Space, Noise, and Safety. Each of the seven mandatory elements are required to be addressed by the general plan; however, State law allows these to be consolidated as long as the required issue areas are addressed.

The general plan is not to be confused with zoning. Although both the general plan and the zoning ordinance designate how land may be developed, they do so in different ways. The general plan has a long-term outlook. It identifies the types of development that will be allowed, the spatial relationships among land uses, and the general pattern of future development. Zoning regulates present development through specific standards such as lot size, building setback, and a list of allowable uses. However, the land uses shown on the general plan diagrams will usually be reflected in the local zoning maps as well. Development must not only meet the specific requirements of the zoning ordinance, but also the broader policies set forth in the general plan.

For more information on the structure and legal requirements of a General Plan, or to see a list of planning related terms and acronyms, please view the following sites: