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. The following discussions help to clarify the meanings of these and other important terms.

Development Policy

A development policy is a general plan statement that guides action. In a broad sense, development policies include goals and objectives, principles, policies, standards, and plan proposals.


A diagram is a graphic expression of a general plan’s development policies, particularly its plan proposals. Many types of development policies lend themselves well to graphic treatment, such as the distribution of land uses, urban design, infrastructure, and geologic and other natural hazards.

A diagram must be consistent with the general plan text (§65300.5 GovCode) and should have the same long-term planning perspective as the rest of the general plan. The Attorney General has observed that “...when the Legislature has used the term ‘map,’ it has required preciseness, exact location, and detailed boundaries....” as in the case of the Subdivision Map Act. No such precision is required of a general plan diagram (67 Cal.Ops.Atty.Gen. 75,77).

As a general rule, a diagram or diagrams, along with the general plan’s text, should be detailed enough so that the users of the plan, whether staff, elected and appointed officials, or the public, can reach the same general conclusion on the appropriate use of any parcel of land at a particular phase of a city’s or county’s physical development. Decision-makers should also be able to use a general plan, including its diagram or diagrams, in coordinating day-to-day land use and infrastructure decisions with the city’s or county’s future physical development scheme.

At the same time, given the long-term nature of a general plan, its diagram or diagrams and text should be general enough to allow a degree of flexibility in decision-making as times change. For example, a general plan may recognize the need for and desirability of a community park in a proposed residential area, but the precise location of the park may not be known when the plan is adopted. The plan would not need to pinpoint the location, but it should have a generalized diagram along with policies saying that the park site will be selected and appropriate zoning applied at the time the area is subdivided. In this sense, while zoning must be consistent with the general plan, the plan’s diagram or diagrams and the zoning map are not required to be identical.


A goal is a general direction-setter. It is an ideal future end related to the public health, safety, or general welfare. A goal is a general expression of community values and, therefore, may be abstract in nature. Consequently, a goal is generally not quantifiable or time-dependent. Although goals are not mentioned in the description of general plan contents in §65302 GovCode, they are included here for several reasons. First, defining goals is often the initial step of a comprehensive planning process, with more specific objectives defined later. Second, goals are specifically mentioned in the statutes governing housing element contents (§65583 GovCode). Third, while the terms “goal” and “objective” are used interchangeably in some general plans, many plans differentiate between broad, unquantifiable goals and specific objectives. Either approach is allowable, as flexibility is a characteristic of the general plan.

Examples of goals:

  • Quiet residential streets
  • A diversified economic base for the city
  • An aesthetically pleasing community
  • A safe community

Goals should be expressed as ends, not actions. For instance, the first example above expresses an end, namely, “quiet residential streets.” It does not say, “Establish quiet residential streets” or “To establish quiet residential streets.”


An objective is a specified end, condition, or state that is an intermediate step toward attaining a goal. It should be achievable and, when possible, measurable and time-specific. An objective may pertain to one particular aspect of a goal or it may be one of several successive steps toward goal achievement. Consequently, there may be more than one objective for each goal.

Examples of objectives:

  • The addition of 100 affordable housing units over the next five years.
  • A 25 percent increase in downtown office space by 2008.
  • A 50 percent reduction in the rate of farmland conversion over the next ten years.
  • A reduction in stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots.


A principle is an assumption, fundamental rule, or doctrine guiding general plan policies, proposals, standards, and implementation measures. Principles are based on community values, generally accepted planning doctrine, current technology, and the general plan’s objectives. In practice, principles underlie the process of developing the plan but seldom need to be explicitly stated in the plan itself.

Examples of principles:

  • Mixed use encourages urban vitality.
  • The residential neighborhoods within a city should be within a convenient and safe walking distance of an elementary school.
  • Parks provide recreational and aesthetic benefits.
  • Risks from natural hazards should be identified and avoided to the extent practicable.


A policy is a specific statement that guides decision-making. It indicates a commitment of the local legislative body to a particular course of action. A policy is based on and helps implement a general plan’s objectives.

A policy is carried out by implementation measures. For a policy to be useful as a guide to action it must be clear and unambiguous. Adopting broadly drawn and vague policies is poor practice. Clear policies are particularly important when it comes to judging whether or not zoning decisions, subdivisions, public works projects, etc., are consistent with the general plan.

When writing policies, be aware of the difference between “shall” and “should.” “Shall” indicates an unequivocal directive. “Should” signifies a less rigid directive, to be honored in the absence of compelling or contravening considerations. Use of the word “should” to give the impression of more commitment than actually intended is a common but unacceptable practice. It is better to adopt no policy than to adopt a policy with no backbone.

Solid policy is based on solid information. The analysis of data collected during the planning process provides local officials with the knowledge about trends, existing conditions, and projections that they need to formulate policy. If projected community conditions are not in line with a general plan’s objectives, local legislative bodies may adopt policies that will help bring about a more desirable future.

Examples of policies:

  • The city shall not approve a parking ordinance variance unless the variance pertains to the rebuilding of an unintentionally destroyed non-conforming use.
  • The city shall not approve plans for the downtown shopping center until an independently conducted market study indicates that the center would be economically feasible.
  • The city shall give favorable consideration to conditional use permit proposals involving adaptive reuse of buildings that are designated as “architecturally significant” by the cultural resources element.


A standard is a rule or measure establishing a level of quality or quantity that must be complied with or satisfied. Standards define the abstract terms of objectives and policies with concrete specifications.

The Government Code makes various references to general plan standards. For example, §65302(a) states in part that the land use element must “...include a statement of the standards of population density and building intensity recommended for the various districts and other territory covered by the plan.” Other examples of statutory references to general plan standards include those found in §66477 (the Quimby Act) and §66479 (reservations of land within subdivisions). Of course, a local legislature may adopt any other general plan standards it deems desirable.

Examples of standards:

  • A minimally acceptable peak hour level of service for an arterial street is level of service C.
  • The minimum acreage required for a regional shopping center is from 40 to 50 acres.
  • High-density residential means 15 to 30 dwelling units per acre and up to 42 dwelling units per acre with a density bonus.
  • The first floor of all new construction shall be at least two feet above the base flood elevation.

Plan Proposal

A plan proposal describes the development intended to take place in an area. Plan proposals are often expressed on the general plan diagram.

Examples of plan proposals:

  • First Street and Harbor Avenue are designated as arterials.
  • The proposed downtown shopping center will be located within the area bound by D and G Avenues and Third and Fourth Streets.
  • A new parking structure shall be located in the vicinities of each of the following downtown intersections: First Street and A Avenue, and Fifth Street and D Avenue.

Implementation Measure

An implementation measure is an action, procedure, program, or technique that carries out general plan policy. Each policy must have at least one corresponding implementation measure.

Examples of implementation measures:

  • The city shall use tax-increment financing to pay the costs of replacing old sidewalks in the redevelopment area.
  • The city shall adopt a specific plan for the industrial park.
  • Areas designated by the land use element for agriculture shall be placed in the agricultural zone.

Linking Objectives to Implementation

The following examples show the relationships among objectives, policies, and implementation measures. The examples are arranged according to a hierarchy from the general to the specific—from goals to implementation measures. In an actual general plan, there might be more than one policy under each objective, more than one implementation measure under each policy, etc.

Example #1:

GoalA thriving downtown that is the center of the city’s retail and service commercial activities.
ObjectiveDevelopment of a new regional shopping center in the downtown.
PolicyThe city shall not approve discretionary projects or building permits that could impede development of the downtown regional shopping center.
Implementation Measures
  • The city shall adopt an interim zoning ordinance restricting further development in the general vicinity of the proposed downtown shopping center until a study has been completed determining its exact configuration.
  • During the interim zoning period, the city shall adopt a special regional shopping center zoning classification that permits the development of the proposed downtown mall.
  • Upon completion of the study, the city council shall select a site for the downtown mall and shall apply the shopping center zone to the property.

Example #2:

GoalAffordable, decent, and sanitary housing for all members of the community.
Objective500 additional dwelling units for low-income households by 2010.
PolicyWhen a developer of housing within the high-density residential designation agrees to construct at least 30 percent of the total units of a housing development for low-income households, the city shall grant a 40 percent density bonus for the housing project.
Implementation MeasuresThe city shall amend its zoning ordinance to allow for a 40 percent density bonus in the high-density residential zone.