Part One:

The Specific Plan


The Specific Plan

A specific plan is a tool for the systematic implementation of the general plan. It effectively establishes a link between implementing policies of the general plan and the individual development proposals in a defined area. A specific plan may be as general as setting forth broad policy concepts, or as detailed as providing direction to every facet of development from the type, location and intensity of uses to the design and capacity of infrastructure; from the resources used to finance public improvements to the design guidelines of a subdivision.

A specific plan may encompass an area as large or larger than the 2,800 acres affected by the Ahmanson Ranch Specific Plan in Ventura County, or as small as a single acre. A specific plan may be developed in response to a single policy issue, or to address each applicable policy of the general plan. It may also diverge from the issues contained in the general plan into other subjects viewed by the community as being of relevance.

To an extent, the range of issues that is contained in a specific plan is left to the discretion of the decision-making body. However, all specific plans, whether prepared by a general law city or county, must comply with Sections 65450 - 65457 of the Government Code. These provisions require that a specific plan be consistent with the adopted general plan of the jurisdiction within which it is located. In addition, specific plans must be consistent with any Airport Land Use Plan pursuant to Public Utilities Code §21676. In turn, all subsequent subdivision and development, all public works projects and zoning regulations must be consistent with the specific plan.

The initiation of the specific plan process may be motivated by any number of factors including development issues or the efforts of private property owners, elected officials, citizen groups, or the local planning agency. As with a general plan, the authority for adoption of the specific plan is vested with the local legislative body pursuant to §65453(a). However, unlike the general plan, which is required to be adopted by resolution (§65356), two options are available for the adoption of a specific plan: 1) adoption by resolution, which is designed to be policy driven, or 2) adoption by ordinance, which is regulatory by design.

The adoption of a specific plan is a legislative act similar to adoption of a general plan or zoning ordinance. Therefore, specific plans may be subjected to voter initiative and referenda (Yost v. Thomas (1984) 36 Cal.3d 561 and DeVita v. County of Napa, (1995) 9 Cal. 4th 763). (For further discussion see Part 4.)

Specific Plan Attributes & Disadvantages

A thorough specific plan can enable planners to effectively implement selected long term general plan objectives in a short time frame. The enabling statutes are flexible, allowing public agencies to create standards for the development of a wide range of projects or solutions to any type of land use issues. The plan may present the land use and design regulations which guide the development of a city center, such as the City of Brea’s Towne Plaza Specific Plan, or incorporate land use and zoning regulations, infrastructure plans, and development approval processes for the development of residential, office, commercial and open space uses, such as the City of Folsom’s Parkway Specific Plan and Design Guidelines. The plan may be organized into a concise set of development policies and include land use regulations, a capitol improvement program, or financing program within a single document.

A specific plan may be used to implement the policies of an optional economic development element of a general plan. Policies of the general plan which are specific to financing infrastructure improvements and extensions, or cost recovery programs may be implemented by matching land uses with supporting public facilities. This is done to assist development engineering departments and developers avoid ineffective or undersized streets, sewers, water lines, and other necessary improvements. In addition, it may directly impose exactions in association with the general plan’s capitol improvement policies.

The specific plan process must provide opportunities for the general public, as well as residents located within planning areas, to assist in the planning of their particular communities. Public involvement helps define the community’s vision of future growth and development.

Future development proposals may benefit from the foundation created by the specific plan. For example, a Program EIR adopted to fulfill the plan’s CEQA obligation may streamline the processing of subsequent discretionary projects by obviating the need for additional environmental documentation.

The specific plan represents a good tool for developing a community "sense of place." A creative and innovative specific plan may bridge the gap between monotonous urban development and a livable neighborhood.

The specific plan also has disadvantages. These include the time, cost, and obligation of staff resources to prepare and implement the plan. To be effective, the plan requires the collection and analysis of significant amounts of detailed data. Since most planning agencies do not have the staff to commit to the preparation process, most plans include the involvement and cost of outside consultants. Similarly, the incorporation of the plan into the day to day planning processes may require the commitment of additional staff time, particularly when the plan establishes regulations which are only applicable to the area affected by the plan.

Further, specific plans prepared for a single project may become obsolete if the project is not implemented. The result could include the need for extensive revision or repeal.

The adoption of a specific plan does not vest development by statute, but its entitlements may be defined by development agreements and vesting tentative maps. Specific plans themselves are dynamic documents and may be subject to change. There are no assurances to residents and project proponents that the plan will not be subject to future revisions.


Statutory Requirements

Section 65451 of the Government Code mandates that a specific plan be structured as follows:

(a) A specific plan shall include a text and a diagram or diagrams which specify all of the following in detail:

(1) The distribution, location, and extent of the uses of land, including open space, within the area covered by the plan.

(2) The proposed distribution, location, and extent and intensity of major components of public and private transportation, sewage, water, drainage, solid waste disposal, energy, and other essential facilities proposed to be located within the area covered by the plan and needed to support the land uses described in the plan.

(3) Standards and criteria by which development will proceed, and standards for the conservation, development, and utilization of natural resources, where applicable.

(4) A program of implementation measures including regulations, programs, public works projects, and financing measures necessary to carry out paragraphs (1), (2), and (3).

(b) The specific plan shall include a statement of the relationship of the specific plan to the general plan.

(The entire specific plan statute is included in Appendix B of this report for reference.)

The statutes apply to all counties and general law cities. They do not apply to charter cities unless incorporated by local charter or code. However, charter cities are required to comply with the Subdivision Map Act’s findings requirements pertaining to a subdivision’s consistency with an adopted specific plan pursuant to §65455.


Legal Adequacy

A specific plan must meet the minimum requirements of the statute listed above in order to be legally adequate. Numerous specific plans reviewed by OPR commonly lack one or more of the following:


Area And Community Plans

Practicing planners in California have used a variety of euphemisms to describe specific plans. The creative use and combination of planning terms to describe various planning tools has blurred the distinction between specific plans, community plans, and area plans to the extent that the terms are often misused. The following discussion highlights the differences among such plans.

A community plan is defined in Public Resources Code §21083.3 as a part of the General Plan which (1) applies to a defined geographic portion of the total area included in the general plan, (2) includes or references each of the mandatory elements specified in §65302 of the Government Code, and (3) contains specific development policies adopted for the area, and identifies measures to implement those policies, so that the policies which will apply to each parcel can be determined.

Area plans are not specifically mentioned in statute; however, they are authorized under §65301(b), which allows individual sections of the general plan to be devoted to a particular subject or geographic area. In addition, they are also allowed as optional elements or subjects under §65303.

Area and community plans address a particular region or community within the overall planning area of the general plan. An area or community plan is adopted as a general plan amendment. It refines the policies of the general plan as they apply to smaller geographic areas, and is implemented by local ordinances such as those regulating land use and subdivision. Area or community plans also provide forums for resolving local conflicts among competing interests. An area or community plan must be consistent with the general plan of which it is a part.

Specific plans differ from area and community plans in the following ways:

Specific plans are required under §65451(a)(2) to identify proposed major components of infrastructure needed to support planned land uses. Community plans and area plans may, but are not required to, contain similar analyses.