Part Two:

Guidelines for Preparing Specific Plans


The purpose of this part is twofold: (1) to outline a strategic approach to the preparation, adoption, and implementation of specific plans; and (2) to provide a framework and explanation of the statutory requirements for specific plans. In addition, this part provides a brief discussion of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the role it plays in the specific planning process.


I. Decision To Prepare A Specific Plan

Government Code §65450 provides that the local planning agency, planning commission and/or legislative body has the authority to initiate the preparation of a specific plan. Private parties may also initiate a plan as provided for by local agencies. An example of the initiation by a private party would be an application for a tentative subdivision map which, under a local subdivision ordinance or general plan policy, requires the concurrent preparation of a specific plan.


II. Planning Process

The following model is a modified version of the strategic planning process described in the General Plan Guidelines, and adapted to the intricacies of specific plans. This model is conceptual and may be used as a reference to guide the selection or development of a process which meets the needs of the respective jurisdiction. Other comprehensive planning models are available which may achieve similar results.

A. The Work Program

The preparation of a work program should be the first consideration after making the decision to prepare a specific plan. The program should set forth the responsibilities the departments, consultants, and/or individuals will take in each phase of the process. In addition, it should provide direction in the scope of the work to be performed, the funding mechanisms, consultants, public participation, and deadlines.

Early Direction:

The work program should incorporate early policy direction from the legislative decision making body, defining the general direction for the specific plan and its objectives and policies. This direction may take the form of precise guidelines for what the specific plan should accomplish, or a general vision of the planning area.

This early direction may change as a result of public input, committee recommendations, or new information obtained during the collection or analysis of data. Regardless, the early policy direction will provide staff, consultants, and the public a basis for beginning the process of preparing a specific plan.

Consultant or Staff Preparation:

The legislative decision making body has the discretion to decide who may prepare a specific plan. Specific plans may be prepared by agency staff, by a private consulting firm under a contract to assist staff, or solely by a consultant performing the role of staff. In other situations, specific plans may be a requirement of a project and prepared by a project proponent or by a consultant under contract to the project proponent. Private parties may also be responsible for preparing or contracting for the preparation of a specific plan as part of a project application. Whenever a consultant is preparing the plan, the work program should require an administrative draft, so that agency staff can review progress of the plan. The agency must budget for sufficient staff resources to ensure that the administrative draft is reviewed for consistency with the general plan and other regulations of the city or county.

Adoption Deadlines:

Deadlines should be incorporated into the work program to ensure the timely completion of the specific plan. The deadlines should be reasonable to ensure that the quality of the product is consistent with the expectations of the decision makers. The time lines are typically a product of either the political constraints of a local legislative body, or the development proposals which will follow after the adoption of the specific plan.

The Permit Streamlining Act is not applicable to the adoption of a specific plan. Therefore, prudence should prevail in the adoption of deadlines which are functional and realistic.

Public Participation:

The participation of those working or residing within a specific plan area or more broad participation of the local citizens can play an important role in the preparation of a specific plan. Section 65453 states that "A specific plan shall be prepared, adopted and amended in the same manner as a general plan..." as such, opportunities for the involvement of citizens, public agencies, public utilities, civic education, and other community groups must be provided pursuant to §65351. For example, the City of San Jose utilizes the assistance of a community-based task force composed of property owners, business owners, residents, other agencies, school districts, and other stakeholders when preparing specific plans. The city credits this involvement for the general support apparent during public hearings on and implementation of its specific plans.

B. Current Context

The planning area, as it currently exists, is a function of past decisions and policies. Similarly, the development of a specific plan which serves as the basis for decision making in the future is a function of the existing social, political, economic, and physical environments. The community’s values and views of the existing planning area will strongly influence the direction and focus of the specific plan.

Planning Area Issues:

Each planning area possesses characteristic issues which should be addressed by the specific plan. The issues may include those relevant to historic preservation, environmental quality, residential development, economic development, architectural regulation, commercial/industrial parks, and urban infill. These issues will form the basis for the detailed policies and implementation measures of the specific plan.

Existing Land Use:

The existing uses of land within the planning area must be analyzed to determine the influence they will have and the role they will play under the specific plan. Existing agricultural, industrial, or floodplain open space uses may substantially affect the type of uses planned for adjacent properties. The continuation of existing uses may dramatically affect the planned uses set forth by the specific plan. Land uses surrounding the planning area should also be analyzed and connections/transitions/buffers between uses designed to ensure compatibility with those allowed by the specific plan.

Environmental Conditions:

An evaluation of the planning area’s natural environment, including wildlife habitat, natural hazards, and resources, help provide direction to the type and intensity of development which is planned to occur. This analysis should also include an evaluation of the existing flood plain, seismic, slope and other constraints which will determine the intensity of development and feasibility of implementing plans.

Infrastructure Constraints:

The type and intensity of future development proposed by a specific plan is limited by the capacity of existing infrastructure or the ability to provide new public facilities. The analysis should identify available opportunities for development, as well as potential constraints resulting from the effect new development may have on schools, roads, sewage systems, water supplies, energy consumption and other public services and facilities. Existing utilities, easements, and encumbrances of property may also restrict land use.

Existing Commitments and Policy Constraints:

Past approvals of development entitlements and other quasi-judicial and legislative decisions may have produced limitations to the scope of the specific plan. The adoption of agricultural preserves, biological conservation easements, vesting tentative maps, and development agreements may limit the type and extent of uses allowed, or restrictions to development under the specific plan. For example, the land use and minimum parcel size for a specific plan prepared for an area subject to agricultural preserve contracts will be limited by the minimum allowable parcel size and uses established by local ordinance consistent with the provisions of the Land Conservation Act (Williamson Act) of 1965.

C. Long Term Direction

As a tool for the systematic implementation of the general plan, specific plans should provide the mechanism through which the long term direction of the general plan is implemented. This direction should be balanced against the objectives, policies, zoning ordinance, subdivision ordinance, and other programs which will be implemented through the specific plan.

Issues, Opportunities, and Assumptions:

The issues that have been identified and perhaps were the impetus for preparation of the specific plan should be systematically addressed through objectives, policies, and programs. The policies developed to address the issues must be considered relative to the direction provided by the general plan and the early guidance provided by the legislative decision-making body. Problems may often be resolved through creative application of financing, design features, or attributes of the planning area.

Development and/or conservation opportunities should be identified and utilized in the specific plan. For example, land owned by the local agency within the planning area may be suitable as a future public facility site, or land with significant habitat value may be suitable for a mitigation banking program. Analyses regarding infrastructure financing, ground water availability, and market demand may also help decision makers assess the viability of the plan in the future.

The preparation of a specific plan requires decision-makers, planners, and the public to form certain assumptions concerning the future of the planning area. For example, assumptions might be made for a specific plan area traversed by riparian corridors that open space, and perpetual conservation and maintenance easements will need to be included for viability of the plan.

Formulating Objectives, policies, and implementation measures:

Objectives provide direction to the physical development of the planning area. As such, they help define the range and types of data necessary for preparing the plan. Consequently, cities and counties should develop their initial objectives early in the preparation process. Objectives tend to be general and lack the focus which is required to foster a functional specific plan, but can always be supplemented with more specific policies.

A comprehensive set of policies should be developed which define and implement the objectives. Policies should be written with consideration of their implementation and the project specific implications. The functionality of the policies will often determine the success of the specific plan.

The implementation measures should be functional and realistic by design. A specific plan which is well written and focused can be self-implementing. However, the submittal and approval of individual development proposals will normally result in implementation. Including zoning ordinances and design criteria in the specific plan will shape the planning area over time as individual development projects are designed for consistency with the plan.

D. Steps for Consideration

The following is a general list of considerations and information for inclusion in specific plans. It includes statutory requirements for coordination and review.

Data Collection and Analysis:

The information used in the early stages of specific plan preparation must be current and kept up-to-date throughout the planning process. The previously identified issues, opportunities, assumptions, and initial objectives will establish a direction for studies and help to define the range of information necessary to complete the plan. Background information and technical analyses should be included in the specific plan appendices for future reference and use in future projects. The amount of data collected and analyzed should be sufficient to address any pertinent questions regarding the plan and the plan area. This information should be comprehensive enough to satisfy the needs of both the specific plan and its CEQA document.

Information Sources:

A direct relationship exists between the quality of the information used to prepare a specific plan and its effectiveness. Case study examples of other jurisdictions’ specific plans may provide angles for approaching area issues. The Office of Planning and Research’s Book of Lists (updated annually) can help to locate recently adopted examples. In addition, the yearly awards presented by the California Chapter of the American Planning Association, recognize up-to-date examples of "good" plans. A number of text book references are available through the American Planning Association’s BookService which covers comprehensive planning. Several publications track and analyze planning-related litigation including Daniel J. Curtin, Jr.’s California Land-Use and Planning Law. The State planning laws regulating planning, zoning, and development are another subject for research. Each year, the Legislature enacts laws affecting local government planning activities. The Office of Planning and Research annually compiles these statutes under the title of Planning, Zoning and Development Laws.

Public Agency Information:

Other governmental agencies may adopt subsequent projects which will affect the specific plan. These agencies may have information readily available which will address issues or requirements of the plan. Agencies should be contacted at the local, regional, state, and federal levels. One issue which transcends each of these levels is the supply of water. For example, the local public works department may have information regarding infrastructure; at the regional level, the Local Agency Formation Commission may have information regarding the extension of services or forming service areas; at the state level, the regional water quality control board provides information regarding levels of water quality; and at the federal level, the Bureau of Reclamation has information regarding the water projects and supply in the state.

Inter-Governmental Coordination:

Section 65103(e)(f) requires local governments to coordinate the preparation of local plans (specific plans) with the plans and programs of other public agencies. Intergovernmental coordination involves more than an exchange of information and plans; rather, it fosters cooperative efforts to address issues and promotes planning on a comprehensive basis. The planning process enables various agencies to resolve conflict through collaborative efforts. In addition, CEQA requires that the agency preparing the specific plan consult with responsible and trustee agencies regarding the project implications and the environment.

California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA):

CEQA requires local governments to prepare environmental documents prior to approving "projects." An initial study is prepared for a specific plan or amendment to analyze the potential for significant impacts to the environment. In such cases, where a significant effect may occur, an environmental impact report (EIR) must be prepared. The contents of a specific plan and its EIR overlap extensively. The data, analyses, and studies for one, will likely be necessary for the other. For this reason, both documents should be prepared concurrently and may utilize much of the same information. Individual development projects which follow the specific plan may be well served by a detailed analysis in the EIR. Further discussion of this topic is contained in Part 3 of this document.

Revising Objectives:

Refinements to the draft objectives should take place throughout the planning process. The data, analyses, and input from advisory committees may change individual aspects of the plan. For example, the identification of a threatened or endangered species within a portion of the plan area may alter the type and intensity of proposed uses allowed by the plan.

Policies, Implementation Measures, and Alternative Plans:

For any set of objectives there will be a number of possible courses of action to pursue. Policies, implementation measures, and programs should be developed for each of the alternative planning scenarios. The relationship of each objective and alternative course of action should be considered in light of the general plan, zoning ordinance, subdivision ordinance, capital improvement program, and other programs that will be implemented. Consistency with the general plan should be carefully analyzed and the plan amended as necessary. The policies, programs and implementation measures provide for the creative application of the specific plan to the planning area. Each should be carefully reviewed for clarity, effectiveness, and functional application. The alternative plans enable the decision makers, stakeholders, and other participants to choose from a variety of scenarios, solutions, and programs which will shape the planning area. Although the alternatives may only differ in their treatment of a particular issue, each must be realistic to ensure that the alternative is viable. In addition, the alternatives may be used to satisfy the EIR’s requirements for a discussion of project alternatives.

Selecting The Preferred Plan:

After the plan alternatives have been thoroughly reviewed, decision makers should be able to select the preferred course of action from either one or a synthesis of several alternative plans. When the decision is made to combine two or more parts of separate alternatives, the objectives, policies, and implementation measures may need refinement to ensure that the plan effectively and consistently accomplishes its purpose.

Adopting The Plan:

As previously noted, a specific plan may be adopted by either resolution or ordinance. Whether adopting a new specific plan or amending an existing one, the planning commission and board or council must hold at least one public hearing each to consider the proposal prior to making the final decision (§65453 and 65353). At least 10 days prior to each of these hearings, public notice of the time and place of the hearing must be given in the manner prescribed by state law (§65090 et. seq.). As a project which would affect the "permitted uses or intensity of uses of real property," expanded notice to property owners must also be given pursuant to §65091. The EIR or other environmental documentation must be certified by the legislative body prior to the adoption of the specific plan pursuant to CEQA Guidelines §15092.


Section 65451(a)(4) requires that a specific plan contain a program of implementation measures including regulations, programs, public works projects, and financing measures. A plan adopted by resolution will primarily be implemented through the enactment of separately adopted ordinances and programs. A plan adopted by ordinance will be implemented by regulations and measures contained in the plan itself. Capital improvement projects, public facility financing, application of regulations to development projects, and habitat conservation and restoration projects may act to implement the plan. (Further discussion of this topic is contained in Section 6.)





While state law specifies the mandatory specific plan contents pursuant to §65451, it leaves the format to the discretion of the local legislative body. Many of the specific plans reviewed as part of this report utilized an approach to organization similar to that of the individual elements of a general plan, covering information relating to land use, housing, circulation, open space, and so on. The following model outline is intended as a guide to the organization of a specific plan which is effective, efficient, and statutorily complete.

I. Introductory Plan Information

A. Title Page

1. Name of the plan

2. Name of local agency (Project proponent and/or public agency)

3. Date of adoption

B. Credits, acknowledgments and participants

C. Table of Contents

D. List of Tables

E. List of diagrams and maps

F. Copy of Adopting Resolution and/or Ordinance


II. Summary

A. Purpose statement and range of issues

B. Location

C. Acreage

D. Summary of preparation process


III. Introduction

A. Detailed specific plan purposes

B. Development and conservation issues addressed in the plan

C. Project location, including influencing jurisdictions

1. Written description

2. Regional location map (See Figure 2)

3. Vicinity map (See Figure 3)

4. Site Location Map (See Figure 4)

D. Planning area information and environmental description

E. Statement of whether the document is policy or regulatory by application (If the plan is both policy and regulatory by design, explain the relationship between the policies and regulations.)

F. Statement of how the plans policies and/or regulations accomplish the objectives of the plan.

G. Relationship of the specific plan to the general plan.

H. Relationship of the specific plan to neighboring plans and those of other jurisdictions, regional agencies, and the state.

I. A list of projects required by law to be consistent with the specific plan (e.g. rezonings, tentative subdivision maps and public works projects).


IV. Land Use Planning and Regulatory Provisions

A. The land use plan - a statement of development policies (opportunities, issues, and analysis of data) pertaining to the planned type, intensity, and location of land uses consisting of :

1. Objectives

2. Policies

3. Programs

4. Plan proposals

a. Diagram and written description of planned land uses (See Figure 4 and Figure 5).

b. Characteristics of each land use designation (e.g. single family residential, neighborhood commercial, open space for conservation).

1) Development Standards

2) Standards for conservation, development, and utilization of natural resources.

B. Land Use Regulations

1. Statement of purpose or intent

2. Applicability

a. Statement of applicability of the regulations to the planning area and designations on the specific plan land use plan diagram.

b. Effective date of the regulations

3. Statement of relationship between the specific plan regulations and the zoning, subdivision, and other local ordinances.

4. Development standards.

C. Design Standards

1. Building design, massing & height

2. Parking ratios/standards, location & orientation

3. Garage door size & type

4. Entrances, access, & on-site circulation


V. The Infrastructure Plan

A. Transportation: Development policies pertaining to the planned distribution, location, extent and intensity of public and private transportation consisting of:

1. Objectives

2. Policies

3. Discussion of the relationship between the objectives, policies and how they are implemented through the individual plan proposals.

4. Plan proposals

a. Diagram(s) and written description of proposed transportation components, including improvements that support the planned land uses. (See Figure 6 and Figure 7)

b. Development standards for the primary components of public and private infrastructure (street cross-sections and material requirements).

B. Public Service Infrastructure (water, sewer, and storm drainage): Development policies pertaining to the planned distribution, location, extent, and intensity of water, sewer, and storm drainage consisting of:

1. Objectives

2. Policies

3. Discussion of the relationship between the objectives, policies and how they are implemented through the individual plan proposals.

4. Plan proposals

a. Diagram(s) and written description of proposed water, sewer, and drainage systems, including the improvements which support the planned land uses. (See Figure 8 and Figure 9)

b. Development standards for the primary components of public infrastructure (See Figure 9).

C. Solid Waste Disposal: Development policies pertaining to the planned distribution, location, extent, and intensity of solid waste disposal facilities and services consisting of:

1. Objectives

2. Policies

3. Plan Proposals

a. Description of the type and location of proposed solid waste disposal facilities and serving necessary to support the planned land uses.

a. Description of the proposed facilities and services to be provided (e.g., transformation station and recycling).

D. Energy: Development policies pertaining to the planned distribution, location, extent, and intensity of energy facilities and services consisting of:

1. Objectives

2. Policies

3. Plan proposals

a. Description of the type and location of proposed energy facilities, transmission lines, and easements necessary to support the planned land uses.

b. Description of the proposed facilities and services to be provided (e.g., distribution of natural gas and the regulation of pressure).

E. Other essential facilities necessary to support the proposed land uses (e.g., schools, fire stations, street lighting and landscaping).


VI. Program of Implementation Measures

A. Description of the regulations and ordinances which will implement the specific plan.

B. Capital improvement program

1. Estimated cost of capital projects identified in the specific plan’s infrastructure plan.

2. The measures by which each capital project will be financed.

3. Identification of parties responsible completing each proposed improvement.

C. Financing measures necessary for implementation of each of the specific plan’s proposals other than capital improvements.

1. List and description of projects needing financing.

2. Cost estimates

3. The measures by which each specific plan proposal will be financed.

4. Identification of parties responsible for completing each proposal.

D. Phasing plan for the specific plan proposal including capital improvements (See Figure 10)

E. Subsequent development entitlements

F. Other Programs


VII. Relationship of the Specific Plan’s Environmental Document to Subsequent Discretionary Projects

A. Projects that will be exempt from additional environmental documentation based on the plan’s EIR.

B. Projects that will require additional environmental documentation.


VIII. Specific Plan Administration

A. Specific plan cost recovery fees authorized by §65456

B. Specific plan amendment procedures

1. State requirements

2. Local requirements

IX. Specific Plan Enforcement

X. Appendicies

A. Precise description of the specific plan area boundary.

B. Summaries of key specific plan background data and information.

C. Glossary of specific plan terms