California state law requires each city and county to adopt a general plan “for the physical development of the county or city, and any land outside its boundaries which in the planning agency’s judgment bears relation to its planning” (Gov. Code § 65300). The general plan expresses the community’s comprehensive long range development goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of future land uses, both public and private. The California Supreme Court has described general plans as the “charter to which [zoning] ordinance[s] must conform”, but the general plan extends far beyond zoning and land use. The General Plan functions as the policy framework governing local jurisdiction approvals of zoning, subdivision, and other land use entitlements, as well as planning to meet the need for additional public infrastructure and facilities. A General Plan targets a year in the future by which time the plan will be implemented, called the “planning horizon.”
State law requires that the General Plan address eight topics, or elements: Land Use; Circulation (i.e., transportation), Housing, Open Space, Conservation, Safety, Noise, and as of 2018, Environmental Justice (this element will be phased in as cities revisit their other elements). Cities may also include additional elements on issues of concern, such as Economic Development or Social and Racial Justice. There is no mandatory maximum number of elements that a general plan must include. Once added into the general plan, each element, regardless of statutory requirement, assumes the same legal standing, and must be consistent with other elements. Of the eight elements, the two that most directly affect the supply of affordable housing are Land Use and Housing.
Land Use Element
The Land Use Element is perhaps the most recognizable to the general public since it consists of a map of the jurisdiction with different colors designating properties planned for housing at various densities, as well as a variety of commercial, industrial, and other non-residential uses. Generally, higher densities of housing and greater intensities of employment land uses are clustered near the downtown or town center area, around rail transit stations, and along bus lines. Lower-densities of housing are generally located towards the edge of the urban area and in hilly locations.
The sum total of housing at various densities and types and intensities of properties planned for non-residential uses in the Land Use Element show how the jurisdiction intends to address its balance, or imbalance, between jobs and housing. Thus, decisions about residential densities and intensity of non-residential land uses affect not only the immediately surrounding neighborhoods but also the community-wide impact on nearby cities and the region as a whole.
The Housing Element consists of the identification and analysis of existing and projected housing needs by demographic category and a statement of the community’s goals, objectives, policies, resources, and programs for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing to meet those needs, particularly the needs of lower- and moderate income households. The part of the Housing Element that receives the most attention is the discussion of how the jurisdiction intends to implement its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). RHNA goals for every city and for county unincorporated territory are generally established by the regional Council of Governments (in the case of the 9-County Bay Area, this is the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG), and fix numerical goals by the anticipated growth in housing demand by income level.
Each housing element must detail how the community will meet its RHNA goals and include an inventory of sites that can accommodate the gross number of units in a jurisdiction’s allocation.
Check out the Housing Element page for additional detail.
Amendments to General Plans
Jurisdictions regularly amend General Plans to reflect changed conditions and situations. For instance, amendments may be needed when new State laws require an adjustment of land use or inclusion of policies. The periodic update of the Housing Element to incorporate the latest RHNA production goals is considered an amendment to the General Plan. Additionally, many cities also have processes under which property owners can apply for changes to their land use designation. And when years pass and a jurisdiction is approaching the planning horizon in its current plan, the jurisdiction must undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the Plan to extend the planning horizon further into the future.
Palo Alto adopted an updated Comprehensive Plan in November 2017, Gilroy in 2020, Milpitas in 2021, and the cities of Campbell and Los Gatos have begun comprehensive updates of their General Plans. San Jose adopted its Envision 2040 General Plan in 2011 and completed major 4-year reviews of the plan in 2016 and 2020.
On occasion, a jurisdiction will determine that certain neighborhoods or areas need a more fine-grained approach to planning. In such cases, it can create a Specific Plan that implements city-wide/county-wide General Plan policies but with a customized set of development standards. Adoption of a Specific Plan, in effect, is another way to amend the General Plan.
Comprehensive or piecemeal amendments to a General Plan or adoption/revision of a Specific Plan provide opportunities for public involvement in advocating for more affordable housing and housing with deeper affordability levels.