What is a General Plan?
Every city, town, and county 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 aspiration for its future growth and development. The general plan contains the goals and polices upon which the City Council and Planning Commission will base their land use decisions. California State law requires that each town, city, or county must adopt a general plan for the physical development of the jurisdiction and any land outside its boundaries that bears relation to its planning. Typically, a general plan is designed to address the issues facing the City for the next 20 years.
The general plan is made up of a collection of “elements,” or topic categories. There are currently nine mandatory elements: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, safety, and environmental justice. Communities may include other elements that address issues of local concern, such as economic development, community character, or urban design. Communities can also organize their general plan any way they choose, as long as they address each of the required topical categories.
A general plan has three defining features.
General. A general plan provides general policy guidance that will be used to direct future land use and resource decisions.
Comprehensive. A general plan is comprehensive in nature, covering a range of topics, such as land use, housing, 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.
Did you know: A general plan is distinct from zoning?
Although both the general plan and the zoning code designate how land may be developed, they do so in different ways. A general plan has a broad, long-term outlook that identifies the types of development that will be allowed, the spatial relationships among land uses, and the general pattern of future development. A zoning code regulates development through specific standards such as lot size, building setbacks, height, and allowable uses. While the land uses shown on the general plan diagram are typically similar to the zoning map, upon adoption of the updated General Plan, the City must amend the zoning code to ensure consistency with the adopted General Plan.
What is a Housing Element?
A housing element is just one part of a jurisdiction’s General Plan. But, unlike the other elements of a General Plan, State law requires that housing elements be updated every eight years. Housing elements are intended to appropriately plan for changing housing needs within a jurisdiction. The State assesses the community needs and then provides the community with a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), or the number of units necessary to fulfill the community’s housing needs. The housing element must then be periodically updated to reflect and plan to meet changing RHNA requirements. Simply, a housing element is a housing plan.
What is a Climate Action Plan (CAP)?
A Climate Action Plan (CAP) is a jurisdiction’s plan for addressing climate change. As greenhouse gas levels continue to increase and threaten our health and safety, Climate Action Plans are becoming more important than ever. Climate Action Plans set reduction goals for the community’s greenhouse gas emissions, establish a time frame to meet those goals, plan for how the community’s growth with affect emissions, and establishes a framework for the continuous emission measurement.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The City’s existing General Plan contains the following elements
- Economic Development
- Growth Management
- Land Use
- Traffic and Circulation
- Parks and Recreation
- Public Facilities and Utilities
- Open Space and Conservation
- Air Quality and Greenhouse Gas
As a part of updating the General Plan, the City may reorganize or add to existing elements and/or may add new elements to emphasize new planning issues that have arisen since the current General Plan was adopted.
While the existing San Ramon General Plan is serving the community well, the City is doing the update to refine the Plan, address emerging trends and recent State laws, consider new issues, remove completed implementation measures and integrate the Housing Element and Climate Action Plans. This effort is intended to be a technical update of the existing General Plan. This planning effort will also allow the Consultant Team in coordination with City staff to implement best practices in planning to ensure San Ramon is resilient to future risks while also improving quality of life.
State law requires every city, town, and county to adopt a General Plan to address land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, safety, and environmental justice. General plans may also address and emphasize other subjects of local importance. The updated and integrated plan will guide how San Ramon should develop and evolve, and where funds and resources for infrastructure, services, and programs should be directed.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the potential environmental impacts of all projects must be assessed, disclosed, and appropriately mitigated. Adoption of the General Plan, Housing Element, or CAP are considered projects under CEQA. The results of this environmental review process are conveyed in the form of an environmental impact report, or EIR.
As required by CEQA Guidelines, the San Ramon General Plan EIR will identify the potential environmental impacts associated with the implementation of the General Plan, Housing Element, and CAP. This analysis will assess and, if necessary, include measures to mitigate potential impacts related to CEQA-required topics. These topics include: air quality, greenhouse gases, hazards and hazardous materials, hydrology, land use, noise, population and housing, public services, recreation, mobility and transportation, utilities, agricultural and forest resources, biological resources, cultural resources, geology and soils, and aesthetics.
The General Plan is anticipated to be completed by February 2023.
The Regional Housing Needs Allocation, RHNA (often pronounced “REE-nah”), is a process that is repeated on an eight (8) year cycle when updating the Housing Element.
The State’s role, through the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), is to determine how many total housing units (by income category) each region (including the Bay Area) within the State will need in an 8-year housing cycle, based on population projections and job growth.
For the Bay Area, the regional planning agency, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), creates a methodology for allocating the Bay Area’s total housing need (by income category) to each of the 101 cities and nine (9) counties within the Bay Area. State law requires all jurisdictions plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community.
The City of San Ramon’s role is to plan and program the City’s share of the RHNA through the update of the Housing Element in the General Plan.
The upcoming RHNA cycle is for the period from 2023 to 2031. To learn more about the RHNA process, watch the video below, visit the Ask City Hall - Housing in San Ramon page, view the February 19, 2021 City Update Housing Update Presentation, and view the February 23, 2021 Joint City Council / Planning Commission RHNA Update Presentation.
If the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines that a Housing Element fails to substantially comply with the State’s Housing Element Law, there are potentially serious consequences. When a jurisdiction’s Housing Element is found to be out of compliance, a jurisdiction may be sued by the California Office of the Attorney General. A court may impose requirements for land use decisions until the jurisdiction brings its Housing Element into compliance with State law.
A Housing Element is considered out of compliance with State law if one of the following applies:
1. It has not been revised and updated by the statutory deadline, or
2. Its contents do not substantially comply with the statutory requirements. If a Housing Element is certified, there is a presumption that it is adequate, and a plaintiff must present an argument showing that it is in fact inadequate.
Over the years, California has steadily increased the penalties for not having a legally compliant Housing Element, and this trend is expected to continue.
Repercussions may include:
1. Limited access to State Funding. The Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) awards funds based on competitions that take into consideration the approval status of a community’s Housing Element.
2. Lawsuits. Developers and advocates may sue jurisdictions if their Housing Element is not compliant with State Law. Several potential consequences of being sued may include:
a. Mandatory compliance – The court may order the community to bring the Housing Element into compliance.
b. Suspension of local control on building matters – The court may suspend the locality's authority to issue building permits or grant zoning changes, variances or subdivision map approvals.
c. Court approval of housing developments – The court may step in and approve housing projects, including projects that may be opposed by the local community.
d. Fees – If a jurisdiction faces a court action stemming from its lack of compliance and either loses or settles the case, it often must pay substantial attorney fees to the plaintiff's attorneys in addition to the fees paid to its own attorneys. These fees can easily exceed $100,000.
The General Plan consulting team consists of a core group of highly-experienced planner, designers, and technical specialists:
- Mintier Harnish (lead consultant)
- Rincon Consultants
- Natelson & Dale
- Fehr & Peers
- Veronica Tam and Associates
This process provides all residents and businesses with the chance to help guide the future of San Ramon. A successful General Plan will reflect the community’s vision and priorities, and we need public input to set the vision and priorities.