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.

Geographic Comprehensiveness

The plan must cover the territory within the boundaries of the adopting city or county as well as “any land outside its boundaries which in the planning agency’s judgment bears relation to its planning” (§65300 GovCode). For cities, this means all territory within the city limits, both public and private. Counties must address all unincorporated areas.

When establishing its planning area, each city should consider using its sphere of influence as a starting point. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) in every county adopts a sphere of influence for each city to represent “the probable physical boundaries and service area” of that city (§56076). Although there is no direct requirement that the sphere and the planning area match, the former provides a convenient measure of the city’s region of interest.

A county should consider the general plans of every city within the county in its own plans. City planning policies may be reflected in the county plan in various ways. The county plan may discuss city policies in the broad context of countywide policy. It may summarize city policies while laying out the county policies for the surrounding unincorporated area. It may examine city policies in the context of community plans that it has adopted for the surrounding unincorporated areas. In addition, since issues are not confined to political boundaries, the law provides for planning outside of the jurisdiction’s territory. Cooperative extraterritorial planning can be used to guide the orderly and efficient extension of services and utilities; ensure the preservation of open space, agricultural, and resource conservation lands; and establish consistent standards for development in the plans of adjoining jurisdictions.

Cities and counties should work together to delineate planning areas and may establish formal agreements for processing development proposals. For example, Yolo County delegates a portion of its land use authority to the City of Davis within areas surrounding the city. As urbanization occurs and adjoining cities expand, the potential for conflict between cities competing for the same lands increases. Intercity cooperation in establishing planning areas can proactively help to avoid such disputes.


Viewing the local general plan in its regional context is important. Traditionally, the concept of “community” encompassed only a local entity—the city or county. With increasing urbanization, the growing interdependence of local governments, and important issues that transcend local boundaries, such as transportation, air quality, and floodplain management, the regional perspective should be considered. Cities and counties should identify risks from natural hazards that extend across jurisdictional boundaries, then use any available data from watershed-based floodplain management, mapped earthquake faults, or high fire hazard areas as planning tools to address any significant issues. Each local planning agency carries a responsibility to coordinate its general plan with regional planning efforts as much as possible.

Regional planning efforts typically address single issues or have indirect links to the local planning process. Plans prepared by councils of government and other designated regional agencies provide the basis for allocating federal and state funds used for specific items, such as transportation facilities. Other regional plans, such as those for air or water quality, spell out measures that local governments must institute in order to meet federal or state standards for the region. Still others, such as regional housing allocation plans, measure each local government’s responsibility for satisfying a specific share of regional needs. Some regional agencies have put together useful information on seismic safety and other issues that can be helpful in the planning process.

The Legislature has mandated consideration of certain regional impacts in the general plan. For example, if a city or county adopts or amends a mandatory general plan element limiting the number of residential units that may be constructed on an annual basis, it must explain that action. The city or county must make specific findings concerning the efforts it has made to implement its housing element and the public health, safety, and welfare considerations that justify reducing housing opportunities in the region (§65302.8 GovCode). Further, cities and counties must balance the housing needs of the region against the needs of their residents for public services and the available fiscal and environmental resources (§65863.6, §66412.3 GovCode). In addition, the housing element of the general plan must include action programs to accommodate the locality’s regional fair share of housing (§65583, §65584 GovCode).

Local general plans should recognize the city’s or county’s regional role if regional needs are to be satisfied, federal and state standards met, and coordination achieved in the location of public facilities. Accordingly, general plans should include a discussion of the extent to which the general plan’s policies, standards, and proposals correspond to regional plans and the plans of adjoining communities. A city or county may need to reexamine its own general plan when its neighbors make important changes to their plans.

Issue Comprehensiveness

A general plan must address a broad range of issues. Under the “shoe fits” doctrine, the plan should focus on those issues that are relevant to the planning area (§65301(c) GovCode). The plan must address the jurisdiction’s physical development, such as general locations, appropriate mix, timing, and extent of land uses and supporting infrastructure. The broad scope of physical development issues may range from appropriate areas for building factories to open space for preserving endangered species. This may include not only those issues described in the planning statutes, but regional issues as well.

In the 1960s, planners began to assert that land use decisions have not only immediate and future physical and environmental impacts, but also social and economic impacts. Because a general plan represents the most comprehensive local expression of the general welfare as it relates to land use regulation, recognizing social and economic concerns in the general plan may be quite appropriate. Social and economic issues may be discussed within the context of the mandatory elements, such as housing and land use. Some jurisdictions have adopted an optional economic development element as part of their general plans. Environmental justice, which recognizes that land use decisions have consequences for social equity, may also be addressed within the context of the mandatory elements.