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. The internal consistency requirement has five dimensions, described below.

Equal Status Among Elements

All elements of the general plan have equal legal status. For example, the land use element policies are not superior to the policies of the open-space element. A case in point: in Sierra Club v. Board of Supervisors of Kern County (1981) 126 Cal.App.3d 698, two of Kern County’s general plan elements, land use and open space, designated conflicting land uses for the same property. A provision in the general plan text reconciled this and other map inconsistencies by stating that “if in any instance there is a conflict between the land use element and the open-space element, the land use element controls.” The court of appeal struck down this clause because it violated the internal consistency requirement under §65300.5. No element is legally subordinate to another; the general plan must resolve potential conflicts among the elements through clear language and policy consistency.

Consistency Between Elements

All elements of a general plan, whether mandatory or optional, must be consistent with one another. The court decision in Concerned Citizens of Calaveras County v. Board of Supervisors (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 90illustrates this point. In that case, the county land use element contained proposals expected to result in increased population. The circulation element, however, failed to provide feasible remedies for the predicted traffic congestion that would follow. The county simply stated that it would lobby for funds to solve the future traffic problems. The court held that this vague response was insufficient to reconcile the conflicts.

Also, housing element law requires local agencies to adopt housing element programs that achieve the goals and implement the policies of the housing element. Such programs must identify the means by which consistency will be achieved with other general plan elements (§65583(c) GovCode).

A city or county may incorporate by reference into its general plan all or a portion of another jurisdiction’s plan. When doing so, the city or county should make sure that any materials incorporated by reference are consistent with the rest of its general plan.

Consistency Within Elements

Each element’s data, analyses, goals, policies, and implementation programs must be consistent with and complement one another. Established goals, data, and analysis form the foundation for any ensuing policies. For example, if one portion of a circulation element indicates that county roads are sufficient to accommodate the projected level of traffic while another section of the same element describes a worsening traffic situation aggravated by continued subdivision activity, the element is not internally consistent (Concerned Citizens of Calaveras County v. Board of Supervisors (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 90).

Area Plan Consistency

All principles, goals, objectives, policies, and plan proposals set forth in an area or community plan must be consistent with the overall general plan.

The general plan should explicitly discuss the role of area plans if they are to be used. Similarly, each area plan should discuss its specific relationship to the general plan. In 1986, the Court of Appeal ruled on an area plan that was alleged to be inconsistent with the larger general plan. The court upheld both the area plan and the general plan when it found that the general plan’s “nonurban/rural” designation, by the plan’s own description, was not intended to be interpreted literally or precisely, especially with regard to small areas. The court noted that the area plan’s more specific “urban residential” designation was pertinent and that there was no inconsistency between the countywide general plan and the area plan (Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 300). However, the court also noted that in this particular case the geographic area of alleged inconsistency was quite small.

Text and Diagram Consistency

The general plan’s text and its accompanying diagrams are integral parts of the plan. They must be in agreement. For example, if a general plan’s land use element diagram designates low-density residential development in an area where the text describes the presence of prime agricultural land and further contains written policies to preserve agricultural land or open space, a conflict exists. The plan’s text and diagrams must be reconciled, because “internal consistency requires that general plan diagrams of land use, circulation systems, open-space and natural resources areas reflect written policies and programs in the text for each element.” (Curtin’s California Land-Use and Planning Law, 1998 edition, p. 18)

Without consistency in all five of these areas, the general plan cannot effectively serve as a clear guide to future development. Decision-makers will face conflicting directives; citizens will be confused about the policies and standards the community has selected; findings of consistency of subordinate land use decisions such as rezonings and subdivisions will be difficult to make; and land owners, business, and industry will be unable to rely on the general plan’s stated priorities and standards for their own individual decision-making. Beyond this, inconsistencies in the general plan can expose the jurisdiction to expensive and lengthy litigation.