In statute, the general plan is presented as a collection of seven “elements,” or subject categories (see §65302 GovCode). These elements and the issues embodied by each are briefly summarized below.

  • The land use element designates the type, intensity, and general distribution of uses of land for housing, business, industry, open space, education, public buildings and grounds, waste disposal facilities, and other categories of public and private uses.
  • The circulation element is correlated with the land use element and identifies the general location and extent of existing and proposed major thoroughfares, transportation routes, terminals, and other local public utilities and facilities.
  • The housing element is a comprehensive assessment of current and projected housing needs for all economic segments of the community. In addition, it embodies policies for providing adequate housing and includes action programs for that purpose. By statute, the housing element must be updated every five years.
  • The conservation element addresses the conservation, development, and use of natural resources, including water, forests, soils, rivers, and mineral deposits.
  • The open-space element details plans and measures for the long-range preservation and conservation of open-space lands, including open space for the preservation of natural resources, the managed production of resources (including agricultural lands), outdoor recreation, and public health and safety.
  • The noise element identifies and appraises noise problems within the community and forms the basis for land use distribution.
  • The safety element establishes policies and programs to protect the community from risks associated with seismic, geologic, flood, and wildfire hazards. The level of discussion given to each issue in the general plan depends upon local conditions and the relative local importance of that issue. When a city or county determines that an issue specified in the law is not locally relevant, the general plan may briefly discuss the reason for that decision but does not otherwise have to address that issue (§65301).

A local general plan may also include other topics of local interest. For instance, a city or county may choose to incorporate into its land use element a detailed program for financing infrastructure and timing capital improvements. The safety element of a city or county that suffers from wildfire hazards may contain strategic fire protection planning policies to mitigate such hazards.

In the statutory descriptions of the elements, a number of issues appear in more than one element. In order to minimize redundancies or internal conflicts in the general plan, combining elements or organizing the plan by issue often makes practical sense.

There are a number of state and federal laws, such as the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, the Seismic Hazards Mapping Act, the Endangered Species Act, and others, that can affect the content of the general plan.

In addition to the mandatory elements, a city or county may adopt any other elements that relate to its physical development (§65303 GovCode). Once adopted, these optional elements become an integral part of the general plan with the same force and effect as the mandatory elements. Accordingly, zoning, subdivisions, public works, specific plans, and other actions that must be consistent with the general plan must be consistent with any optional elements.

Common themes for optional elements include air quality, capital improvements, community design, economic development, energy, parks and recreation, and water.

An optional element may clarify how a local government exercises its police powers, and in some instances, can expand a local government’s authority. For example, the California Energy Commission may delegate geothermal power plant licensing authority to counties with certified geothermal elements. In the more typical situation, an optional element will indicate how a local government will apply its existing police power or other authority. For example, a historic preservation element may lay the foundation for historic district regulations or participation in the California Main Street Program. A strategic fire prevention planning element could identify wildfire hazard areas, control new development within those areas, and provide the basis for zoning, subdivision, and brush clearance ordinances intended to minimize fire hazards.