Four Basic Questions

1. What is the planning commission?

It is a permanent committee of 5 or more citizens who have been appointed by the city council (or the mayor in some cities) or county board of supervisors to review matters related to planning and development. A commission holds public hearings on a regular schedule (in some jurisdictions, as often as once a week) to consider land use matters. These include such things as the local general plan, specific plans, rezonings, use permits, and subdivisions. Commissioners serve at the pleasure of the council or supervisors, so commission membership changes in response to changes in those bodies.

The commission is the city council's or county board of supervisors' advisor on land use planning. The council or board may choose to follow the recommendations of the commission or not. Accordingly, they may reverse or modify commission actions or send proposals back to the commission for further review. In addition, commission decisions are subject to appeal to the council or board. The council and board have the final say in all city and county matters, respectively.

Because the commission focuses on planning issues, it is a valuable intermediary between the public and the city council or county board of supervisors. When matters run smoothly, the commission has a low profile. However, when there is a controversy, it is there, in the thick of things, doing its best to sort through the facts and make a good decision.

2. Why have a planning commission?

The idea of appointing a group of laymen to make decisions and recommendations about land use planning originated at the turn of the century. Government reformers, seeking to take local government out of the hands of party "machines," reorganized administrative procedures in an attempt to reduce political influence on decisions. One solution was to create a planning commission, made up of appointed citizens, that would be responsible for setting the community's development direction.

California law does not require each city and county to have a planning commission. Nonetheless, almost all do. In those jurisdictions that don't, Kern County for example, the city council or county supervisors considers planning matters directly. On the other hand, some jurisdictions, such as Sacramento County, think that planning commissions are so useful they have two.

3. How does it relate to the planning department?

The city or county planning department is the commission's research staff. The planners can advise the commission on the general plan, specific plans, zoning ordinance, subdivision ordinance and other land use regulations. In addition, they provide background information and recommendations on the proposals that are under the commission's consideration, answer technical questions, and make sure that meetings have been properly advertised in advance. A planning department staff member will always be in attendance at commission meetings. Other attendees may include representatives of the city attorney's or county counsel's office and of the public works department.

4. What does it do?

Cities and counties "plan" in order to identify important community issues (such as the direction of growth, housing needs, and environmental protection), project future demand for services (sewers, roads, fire protection, etc.), address potential problems (such as overloaded sewers or crowded roads), and establish goals and policies for directing and managing future development.

The city council or county supervisors may assign any or all of the following tasks to its planning commission (Government Code sections 65103, 65401, 65402):

Commissioners can learn about their commission's particular responsibilities by asking the planning department and referring to their local zoning and subdivision ordinances.

Figure 1

Development Project Flow Chart

Note: Local procedures may vary. Negative Declaration and EIR documents vary in processing time.


The planning commission holds meetings -- lots of them. State law requires public hearings before planning actions are taken. At its regularly scheduled hearings, the planning commission weighs planning proposals in light of state and local regulations and potential environmental effects and listens to testimony from interested parties. If necessary, the commission may continue a hearing to a later time to allow more information to be gathered or to take additional testimony. The commission usually considers several items at each hearing; considering each proposal separately and taking action before moving on to the next item on the agenda.

Depending upon local ordinance provisions, the commission's decision on a project may be: (1) referred to the city council or board of supervisors as a recommendation for action (this is common for general plan amendments and rezonings); or (2) considered a final action unless appealed to the council or board (this is common for subdivisions, variances, and use permits). The council or board will hold a noticed public hearing on the projects referred to it by the commission (or received on appeal).

Pursuant to the Ralph M. Brown Act (Government Code section 54950), all meetings, including study sessions and workshops, must be open and public. This means that a quorum of commissioners can only discuss commission business in a public meeting. Furthermore, meeting agendas must be posted at least 72 hours in advance and topics are limited to those on the agenda. For more information on the Brown Act see California Land Use and Planning Law, by Daniel J. Curtin, Jr., and Open and Public: A Users Guide to the Ralph M. Brown Act, published by the League of California Cities.


In counties and general law cities, the planning commission must publish advance notice of general plan, specific plan, zone change, conditional use permit, variance, and subdivision public hearings in a newspaper of general circulation. Notice of proposed general plan and specific plan adoption or amendment must be mailed directly to the involved property owners. When a zone change, conditional use permit, variance or subdivision is involved, notice must also be mailed to the owners of property within 300 feet of the project boundaries. Charter cities may adopt different notification procedures than the above.

The Chairperson

The commission chairperson is responsible for making sure that meetings proceed in a fashion conducive to rational decisionmaking. The chair must be familiar with the commission's procedures and with the agenda items to be discussed at each meeting. The chairperson sets the tone of the hearing, keeps the discussion on track, encourages fairness, moderates and contributes to discussions, and helps direct testimony to the issues at hand. The chairperson will usually:

Open the meeting.

Moderate discussion.

Lead deliberations.

An Important Lesson - "Be Prepared"

Prior to every hearing, each of the commissioners should have reviewed the items on the meeting agenda. This means reading the staff report and environmental assessment document, looking at the general plan and zoning ordinance sections pertinent to the particular project, and asking questions of the planning staff when necessary.

At the hearing, commissioners should be able to both ask and answer questions about the project, its relationship to the general plan and to the zoning or subdivision ordinances, and its potential impacts on the community. If legal questions arise, don't be afraid to ask the city attorney or county counsel for his/her opinion. Don't take legal advice from anyone but the city's or county's own lawyer.

Recipe for an Effective Planning Commission

Effective planning commissions share certain qualities. These include:

The Commissioner's "Survival Kit"

Commissioners should bring the following to every meeting:

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Next: The Legal Side of Planning

State of California

Governor's Office of Planning and Research
1400 Tenth Street
Sacramento, CA 95814