What is a General Plan?

Every city and county in California must have a general plan, which is the local government’s long-term framework or “constitution” for future growth and 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 city for the next 15-20 years.

The general plan is made up of a collection of “elements,” or chapters, of which seven are mandatory. The seven State-mandated elements are: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. Communities may include other elements that address issues of particular local concern, such as economic development or urban design. Communities can also organize their general plan anyway they choose, as long as the required topics 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 development through specific standards such as lot size, building setback, and allowable uses. However, the land uses shown on the general plan diagrams will typically 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 see the following publications: