Current general plan requirements date back to the mid-1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the scope of the general plan expanded from two to nine elements, then reduced to seven in 1984 (land use, circulation, housing, open space, conservation, safety, and noise). That number was expanded to eight for the San Joaquin Valley in 2003 when the air quality element was added. In 2018, the environmental justice element was added for all cities and counties that met certain environmental, health, education, and income criteria. Over the years, the Legislature has linked many new mandates directly and indirectly to the general plan, including healthy communities, complete streets, sustainability, climate change, sustainable communities’ strategies, resilience, and disadvantaged unincorporated communities.
Cities and counties may also add optional elements on any subject related to the physical development of their jurisdictions. Common element subjects include economic development, community character and design, water, climate change, public facilities and services, and arts and culture. Once included in the general plan, any optional element is held to the same standards and consistency requirements as the mandatory elements.
General plans must be comprehensive by addressing all required topics, as well as optional topics based on local preference, in a single document and set of policies and programs. General plans must have a long-term planning horizon, typically 15 to 25 years. They must apply to an identified planning area and be internally consistent. Internal consistency includes equal status among elements, consistency between and within elements, and text and diagram (map) consistency.
How Does the General Plan Affect Housing Supply and Affordability? Because the general plan articulates city or county growth and development goals, policies, and programs, it fundamentally affects all housing in a community. The land use element has the most influence by establishing land use designations that determine the location, amount, type, density, and intensity of housing. All of these factors influence housing supply and affordability. The land use element further includes policies that determine how land use designations are to be applied and interpreted, and programs that implement the designation and policies. The circulation element is required by law to support the land use element’s assumptions about population density and intensity by establishing the planned transportation and circulation system necessary to serve the planned housing. The open space and conservation elements influence housing by designating areas in a city or county that should remain undeveloped as conservation or open space resources. The safety and noise elements, among other things, identify areas unsuitable for housing, or that require significant mitigation if housing is present. However, the most influential general plan element related to housing supply and affordability is the housing element.
In developing new land use policies as part of a land use element update, existing policies and their impact on housing development should be examined. According to the Terner Center For Housing Innovation California Residential Land Use Survey, on average, 25 percent of zoned land in California jurisdictions allows single-family development, while only 7 percent of zoned land allows for multi-family housing development. Additionally, the survey found that policies that favor low-density single-family residential development, such as larger lot sizes and strict limits on density and height, not only increase housing costs for all housing types in the community, but also lead to more racial and economic segregation. Examining historic development projects and trends in the jurisdiction can provide some indication of how policies have hindered or facilitated housing development.
Focus on preserving neighborhood character rather than density. Successful land use reform often moves the focus away from preserving existing density to preserving the existing character of a community or neighborhood. Using a form-based land use system can be an effective way of increasing density and allowing for infill development without deviating from the existing form of a neighborhood. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the City developed form-based “character districts” that allowed for a variety of housing types (i.e., duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes) in existing primarily single-family residential neighborhoods while staying consistent with the historic character of the neighborhood. This strategy also allows for an increase in housing capacity throughout a community, rather than focusing new development entirely on mixed-use and commercial corridors.
Furthermore, Senate Bill No. 330 (SB 330) and test cases in court have necessitated that cities and counties reevaluate their land use regulations. Practices such as the pyramid land use system (with no minimum density and the incorporation of lower-intensity uses in higher-density districts) should be corrected to implement a land use strategy that efficiently uses land. Effective general plan/land use element updates have the potential to streamline individual project approval. New land use policies may allow for a larger variety of housing types to be approved by-right or with minimal review.
In developing prohousing land use policies, jurisdictions should also consider how these goals connect to other community goals. For example, illustrating the connection between higher-density housing and vibrant commercial corridors or other community goals may be instrumental in gaining public support for changes.
According to a survey conducted for the San Joaquin Valley REAP Land Use, Housing, and Zoning Report, over 48 percent of responding jurisdiction staff believe that housing elements are at least moderately effective in assisting housing production. Similarly, over 55 percent of respondents believe that general plan elements other than housing are at least moderately effective for enabling housing production in their jurisdictions.
Throughout the interview process, housing stakeholders (e.g., builders, developers, housing advocates) agreed ensuring sufficient land designated for housing in general plans is one of the best planning practices to employ. The MPO Directors strongly advocated for comprehensive, coordinated planning efforts. All groups advocated for increased State funding to support local housing planning efforts. Stakeholder comments included:
Incentivize Density. Several State funding programs are returning to density thresholds and rolling back greenfield development. Because higher-density infill housing can be more expensive to build, local jurisdictions must provide incentives for higher-density development.
Identify, Plan, and Incentivize Priority Sites. Find ways to incentivize infill plans and programs. An example cited was the Fresno COG plan that enables developers to request funding for infrastructure improvements for high-density projects. There should be a focus on transit-station area planning around both bus and rail locations – either with conditional funding or incentives for both market-rate and affordable housing. Priority infill areas should be identified and ranked on a regional basis for funding opportunities.
Cohesive Planning. Aligning priorities and understanding among the jurisdiction’s leaders, staff, and their constituents is critical.
The Right Housing in the Right Place. In some communities it is difficult to find housing sites that are near amenities like transit, schools, and other services. Likewise, some communities struggle with the lack of planned and entitled buildable lots.
Projections and RHNA Out of Sync. There are significant differences between the population, housing, and jobs projections from the state Department of Finance (DOF) — which are used for the Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategies (RTP/SCS) — and the Regional Housing Needs Allocations (RHNA) from HCD. The RHNA numbers are typically higher, often significantly, which makes it difficult to keep regional and local planning in sync.
State Goals in Conflict. There is concern about the negative outcomes of State policies in the Valley context. For example, directly through SB 375 and indirectly through SB 743, GHG reduction goals are being pursued at the expense of other goals, like affordable housing and equitable economic opportunity. In a rural context, where housing and job centers are often far apart and where robust transit systems are impractical, it can be very challenging to satisfy the VMT requirements of SB 743. Moreover, VMT goes up as unemployment drops, so SB 743 can end up punishing communities with greater economic opportunity. In another example, the State-driven preservation of agricultural land is limiting affordable housing production. Ironically, in the Fresno region, groundwater policies are threatening farming’s viability, so the result may be preserving unproductive farmland.
Planning is Not a Key Impediment to Housing Production: Housing planning is not a barrier to housing production, so more planning will not solve the problems. For example, it is not often a problem identifying adequate housing sites, but it will be a challenge getting the RHNA targets built.
Relevant State Laws
California Government Code section 65300, et. seq., Article 5. Authority for and Scope of General Plans.
Senate Bill No. 9 (SB 9)(2021). Housing Development: Approvals, Urban lot splits and two-unit developments.
Senate Bill No. 10 (SB 10)(2021). Housing Development: Density, A tool for residential upzoning in transit-rich areas.
Note: There are a multitude of State laws related to general plan and housing element content too numerous to list here. Please refer to the OPR General Plan Guidelines (see link below) for a comprehensive listing of those laws.
California Office of Planning and Research, General Plan Guidelines (2017).
California Planning Roundtable, “Reinventing the General Plan.”
General Plan Examples
The California Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) identifies and awards the best general plans. Below are references to some of the most recent award-winning general plans in California.
Ventura County 2040 General Plan, Award of Excellence. Comprehensive Plan Award, Large Jurisdiction Category, from APA California Chapter (2021).
City of Beaumont, Elevate Beaumont 2040, Beaumont General Plan Update. Award of Excellence – Comprehensive Plan Award, Small Jurisdiction, from APA California Chapter (2021).
City of Kerman General Plan Update and Program EIR, Award of Merit in Planning. Comprehensive Planning; Small Jurisdiction Category from APA California Chapter, Central Section (2021).
City of Sanger General Plan, Outstanding Planning Award. Academic Award (2016).
City of Tehachapi Form-Based General Plan, Outstanding Planning Award. Comprehensive Planning: Small Jurisdiction (2013).
City of Turlock General Plan (2012), Outstanding Planning Award of Merit. Comprehensive Planning: Small Jurisdiction (2013).