Acknowledging the Gaps: Where the General Plan Falls Short

Oct. 28, 2010, 10:08 a.m.

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In our last post, we suggested that it is often easier to recognize weaknesses than praise accomplishments or potential. That is definitely true for the California General Plan. We have been working with CPR members to list some of the current problems with General Plan policy and practice, and have certainly not had any trouble getting input. Below are some of the weaknesses our members have emphasized. Many will not be surprised to see that it is a fairly long list.

Yet calling out deficiencies and limitations doesn't have to be a pessimistic activity. Working with the list below, and with the input of others who join the conversation, we hope to produce constructive advice for how the General Plan can be revitalized and transformed to overcome such barriers. California's communities can do better. Unless we fully acknowledge where the plan is currently falling short, we may not address all the ways we need to Reinvent it. As always, we hope you'll join the conversation and contribute additional weaknesses you've witnessed or experienced, or respond to the ones listed below. Use the comment box below to share your ideas and reactions.


  • Long range planning is often not considered an essential local government service. Given limited financial resources, jurisdictions question why they should spend scarce General Fund revenues to update their Plans.


  • The most pressing issues facing planners and planning are regional and beyond, in scale.

  • Current legislation and planning practices generally fail to establish local goals [and] policies in context of regional issues and policies.

  • The state legislature has not established comprehensive planning policies to be implemented by regional and local governments, although legislation has set uncoordinated policies for a few geographic areas or topics, e.g., coastal zone, Delta, affordable housing, flood management.

  • Lack of regional vision creates uncertainty and competition between cities and counties for jobs, economic development, and so on.

  • The whole of state planning ends up being less than the sum of +/- 550 general plans (city and county plans).


  • Demands to address additional elements and topics are escalating – new legislation; new requirements.

  • State agency planning is fragmented, and state agencies sometimes work at cross-purposes when addressing local planning issues.

  • State legislation is inconsistent regarding the scope and detail of analyses, policies, and implementation programs among a number of elements.


  • Sometimes (but not usually!) CEQA gets in the way of good planning. CEQA compliance for visionary policy-oriented general plans is particularly difficult, and CEQA litigation can stall general plan implementation. Using the general plan EIR as a first tier EIR is a good idea, but hard to do in practice.


  • Because of the huge technical and financial requirements to create a successful General Plan, most of California's communities are unable to undertake a fully transformative process. Communities with financial and staffing constraints are more likely to adopt basic plans without fully considering their consequences or the potential to do something different. Sadly, this also leaves them open to litigation that will further cost these communities.

  • There is an unmet need to standardize modeling and other planning-related technologies at the regional level to provide consistency and eliminate the need for costly and repetitious analysis at the local level.


  • General Plans have often been amended frequently for specific projects, and developer campaign contributions assured project approvals regardless of the project’s planning merits. It is sometimes hard to assemble a single document that represents the General Plan.


  • General Plans are becoming increasingly technical, which works against the goal of a user friendly product that is easily disseminated via multiple platforms.

  • Many sections of the General Plan encompass policies and programs addressing technical subjects that, though of relevance, are often replicated from other policy documents and ordinances and are of little interest to the general public.


  • There is frequently a lack of imagination in execution despite a fair amount of flexibility under the law, and a tendency to treat the General Plan as separate chapters, rather than an integrated and cohesive document.

  • General Plan processes often miss the opportunity to conduct a vital discussion about vision and values of a community. Though there are some notable exceptions, many cities and counties are bogged down in technical issues and/or caricatures of landscapes, such as “rural”, “urban,” etc., without any serious discussion about the implications of these terms.

  • There is a tendency to bypass or ignore sensitive topics like social justice, homelessness, etc.


  • The General Plan often emphasizes paper and process rather than outcomes, leading to a lack of implementation and follow-through with many existing plans.


  • Communities are constantly challenged by the inability to attract a spectrum of participants that are fully representative of community demographics interests.

  • Planning processes are often accessible in their full form to a very limited set of the population, in part because of the technical nature and length of many planning documents, and in part because only special interests with significant expertise or funding (or a financial stake) can commit the time to be fully involved throughout the process. The remainder of the public seems dependent on newspaper articles, talk radio, and special interest-funded ad campaigns.


  • Some general plans have become very prescriptive in their land use designations and development standards, providing little flexibility to respond to evolving market conditions and needs as they evolve over the General Plan’s life.


  • Few general plans are monitored for implementation and updated on a recurring basis. There is little enforcement of legislatively-required reporting procedures and updates. More frequent “fine-tuning” would help reduce the costs for the comprehensive updates that communities have faced over the past decade.


  • General Plans are subject to the whims of the local electorate and elected officials. Even when nearly complete, they can be thrown out or substantially amended, often with little public involvement, so that certain parties can achieve political or economic gain. This sows distrust in the process and in planners.


  • Cities suffer when economic activity moves out of established centers, and the environment suffers, when valuable farmlands and natural areas are not protected at a city’s edge. Too often, General Plans codify pressures to develop in resource intensive ways, rather than serving as a guide for alternative ways to grow.


  • Communities must often commit substantial resources and costs to the General Plan, beyond what should be required to produce a legally adequate and usable plan. Moreover, there is a lack of a stable funding process for planning.

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