The general plan expresses the community’s development goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of future land uses, both public and private.

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California state law requires each city and county to adopt a general plan “for the physical development of the county or city, and any land outside its boundaries which bears relation to its planning” (§65300 GovCode). The California Supreme Court has called the general plan the “constitution for future development.”

The policies of the general plan are intended to underlie most land use decisions. Pursuant to state law, subdivisions, capital improvements, development agreements, and many other land use actions must be consistent with the adopted general plan. In counties and general law cities, zoning and specific plans are also required to conform to the general plan. In addition, preparing, adopting, implementing, and maintaining the general plan serves to:

  • Identify the community’s land use, circulation, environmental, economic, and social goals and policies as they relate to land use and development.
  • Provide a basis for local government decision-making, including decisions on development approvals and exactions.
  • Provide citizens with opportunities to participate in the planning and decision-making processes of their communities.
  • Inform citizens, developers, decision-makers, and other cities and counties of the ground rules that guide development within a particular community.


Every city and county must adopt "a comprehensive, long term general plan" (§65300 GovCode). The general plan must cover a local jurisdiction’s entire planning area and address the broad range of issues associated with a city’s or county’s development.

Internal Consistency

The concept of internal consistency holds that no policy conflicts can exist, either textual or diagrammatic, between the components of an otherwise complete and adequate general plan. Different policies must be balanced and reconciled within the plan.

Long-term Perspective

Since the general plan affects the welfare of current and future generations, state law requires that the plan take a long-term perspective (§65300 GovCode). The general plan projects conditions and needs into the future as a basis for determining objectives. It also establishes long-term policy for day-to-day decision-making based upon those objectives.

Defining the Parts of a General Plan

A general plan is made up of text describing goals and objectives, principles, standards, and plan proposals, as well as a set of maps and diagrams. Together, these constituent parts paint a picture of the community’s future development.

Elements, Issues, and Flexibility

In statute, the general plan is presented as a collection of seven “elements,” or subject categories (see §65302 GovCode). The required elements are land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise and safety.