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Every county and city 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 contains the goals and polices upon which the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission will base their land use and resource decisions in the future. Typically, a general plan is designed to address the issues facing the County through at least the next 20 years.

Topics Covered

The general plan is made up of a collection of “elements,” or topic categories. The State currently lists nine elements as mandatory: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, safety, environmental justice, and air quality. Communities may include other elements that address issues of local concern, such as economic development, healthy communities, alternative energy, or military compatibility. Jurisdictions can organize their general plan anyway they choose, as long as the required topic categories are addressed. For instance, Kern County is looking to incorporate environmental justice policies throughout the General Plan and not as a stand alone element.

General Plan vs. Zoning

A general plan is not to be confused with zoning, or more specifically, the adopted Kern County Zoning Ordinance. Although both the general plan and the zoning ordinance designate how land may be developed, they do so in different ways. A general plan has a broad, 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. A zoning ordinance regulates development through specific standards such as lot size, building setbacks, height, and allowable uses. The adopted general plan provides the foundation for the zoning ordinance and the two documents must be consistent.

For More Information...

For more information on the structure and legal requirements of a general plan, or to see a list of planning-related terms and acronyms, the following publications are recommended:

Three Defining Features

A general plan has three defining features.

  • General. A general plan provides general policy guidance that will be relied on to guide future land use and resource decisions.
  • Comprehensive. A general plan is comprehensive in nature, covering a range of topics, such as land use, economic development, infrastructure, public safety, recreation, natural resources, and much more.
  • Long-Range. A general plan provides guidance on reaching a future envisioned 20 or more years in the future. To achieve the vision, a comprehensive plan includes goals, policies, and actions that address both immediate and long-term needs.
California General Plan Guidelines cover

General Plan Guidelines

General Plan Guidelines

Published by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (2017)

California Planning Roundtable Glossary of Terms cover

Glossary of Terms

The California General Plan Glossary

Published by The California Planning Roundtable (2001)

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