Types Of Plans That Planners Use


By Steve Brandt, AICP, LEED AP

The simplest definition of a planner is “someone who plans.” So here are a number of different types of land use policy plans that you are likely to encounter in California, with a description showing how they differ from each other and why you want to use them. These plans usually take the form of documents with text, charts, maps, and figures. Some are mandated by State law and must be regularly updated. Others can be used as tools by cities and counties when the situation calls for them.


General Plans

The General Plan is the most important document for a planner. Each city and county is required by State law to adopt a General Plan and keep it updated. State law requires that each General Plan contain the following topics, which are called elements: land use, circulation, conservation, open space, housing, noise, and safety. San Joaquin Valley jurisdictions are also required to include air quality. Often, the General Plan document organizes these elements into chapters, but the General Plan can be organized in any way as long as the required elements are included. State law spells out the type of information that is to be in each element.

In practice, the Land Use Element is the most important and most often used portion of the General Plan, with the Circulation Element coming in second. The Housing Element is unique because it is required to be updated on a schedule set by the State, and must be certified by the State Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) after being adopted by a jurisdiction.

A city or county can choose to include other optional elements into its General Plan. The most common optional elements are Public Facilities, Economic Development, Community Design, Health, Environmental Justice, and Agriculture. Sometimes these topics are interspersed into a required element instead of being written as a standalone element.

What makes the General Plan so important is that all decisions made by a city or county that have a physical effect on the land must be consistent with its General Plan. It is the “constitution” for local land use decisions.

Community Plans and Area Plans

Community Plans and Area Plans are portions of a jurisdiction’s General Plan in a standalone document that are prepared for a specific geographical area that is smaller than the entire area of the jurisdiction. Community Plans or Area Plans are often used by large counties. An Area Plan might cover a large area with similar characteristics, such as a Foothill Plan, which provides General Plan policies for development that apply only to a foothill region. A Community Plan usually covers one unincorporated community. It is like a mini-General Plan just for that community. Very large cities might also use Community Plans to divide up their planning efforts by neighborhoods. The important thing to remember is that these Plans have the same force and authority as the General Plan because they actually are part of the General Plan.


Specific Plan

Specific Plans go into much more detail than General Plans or Community Plans. A Specific Plan can be used to do more precise planning for a smaller geographic area. According to State law, its required topics include land use distribution, transportation infrastructure, location of major wet and dry utility infrastructure, standards for development, implementation measures, and a program for financing.

A specific plan can be adopted by ordinance or by resolution by its city or county. This is an important distinction. If adopted by ordinance, a Specific Plan has the same power as (and can supersede) a zoning ordinance. In this case, all the standards and requirements spelled out are regulated as law. If the Specific Plan is adopted by resolution (which is more common), it is treated as a jurisdiction’s policy, but it is not regulated or enforced like a zoning ordinance. In either case, any proposed maps, public works projects, and development plans must be consistent with a Specific Plan if one exists.

Sometimes Specific Plans can get blamed for being obstructions to development if the site area is not developed soon after plan adoption. Since the Specific Plan is by nature more specific, if the developer’s project changes, the Specific Plan will likely need to be amended. A good practice when writing Specific Plans is to consider what would happen if the current development proposal changed before it’s constructed.

Master Plan

A Master Plan is a kind of catch-all phrase for a plan that can take many forms. It is not defined in State law, so there are no specific requirements for what can be in it. Sometimes a Master Plan looks like a specific plan, but it is called a master plan because the city or county doesn’t want it to be official policy, just more of a suggested roadmap. In other cases, fields outside of planning, like civil engineering or parks programs, often use the term ‘master plan’ to describe their planning efforts. Think Sewer Master Plan, Parks Master Plan, Storm Drain Master Plan, etc.

Site Plan

A Site Plan isn’t really a policy document. It is a scale drawing or map of a proposed development, usually on a single parcel. Notes describing the proposed use or operation are included, usually right on the face of the Site Plan. A Site Plan needs to be consistent with the General Plan, any other plans, and the Zoning Ordinance. Each jurisdiction has procedures for obtaining approval of Site Plans prior to issuance of building permits.

Regulating Plans and Precise Plans

These types of plans are often associated with New Urbanism and/or Form Based Zoning codes. They are usually a mix of a specific plan and zoning for the specified area. They tend for focus more on the shape and form of buildings and blocks, and may even delve into very specific architectural standards. They often use graphics and drawings to illustrate requirements, rather than text and tables.

Corridor Plan

A Corridor Plan is a master plan whose geographic location follows the land that is adjacent to a major transportation corridor. Its purpose is usually to coordinate land use and transportation issues, and to identify and program future upgrades inside the corridor right of way.

Whew!  The term “Plan” gets a lot of use.  There are also many other types of plans –  Habitat Conservation Plan, Regional Transportation Plan, Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan – that are outside the realm of land use policy planning.  The key point is that they each have slightly different purposes and that there is specific content required for each “plan”. They all can be used to make your communities grow the in way you want them to grow.

Happy Planning!

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