Planning for Professionals





What Is Planning ?
Planning is a blend of state laws and local ordinances that controls the regulatory process for evaluating the short-term and long-term impacts, including social, environmental, and economic, which private development and infrastructure will impose on a local community’s quality of life. Planning regulates the use of privately owned land with a complex matrix of overlapping regulations and guidelines that are codified in a variety of statutes, including:

and are aggregated among five state laws:

  • Zoning
  • General Plan
  • Subdivision Map Act
  • California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
  • Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).

Planning also includes consideration of other local, regional, state, and federal regulations as they relate to the scope of a project, such as historical preservation and hazard zones (e.g., seismic, fire, flood). How Do Jurisdictions Manage Their Planning Process ? California law delegates the Planning decision-making process to 475 incorporated cities, 57 unincorporated counties, and 1 combined city and county. Jurisdictions adopt Planning Codes and Zoning regulations  to implement the State Planning Law , and typically have designated staff (e.g., Zoning Administrator) and appointed public members (e.g., Planning Commission, Zoning Board) who are vested with approving or denying and/or recommending approval or denial of Planning permits (i.e., discretionary permits). By state law, commissions and boards must hold publicly noticed meetings and hearings for their deliberations (Ralph M. Brown Act) . The permit applicant and the public may appeal discretionary decisions both administratively (e.g., to a city council) and judicially (e.g., Code of Civil Procedure) .  Public agencies, adjoining jurisdictions, and individuals occasionally pursue an appeal (Writ of Mandate) of an EIR or Negative Declaration approval through litigation  .   Depending on a project’s complexities (e.g., new fence vs. new condominiums), state law and local ordinances require public hearings for Planning deliberations and advance notification for the public and closely impacted parties by newspaper publication and direct mailing (e.g., adjoining properties within 300 feet of the parcel’s boundary). While many jurisdictions delegate Planning decisions to staff and commissioners, state law requires that policy deliberations, such as amendments to General Plans and Zoning ordinances and certifications of EIRs, be considered by city councils and county boards of supervisors at public hearings.   Planning History
1893  Subdivision Map Act adopted (rudimentary statute).
1917  Zoning Law adopted.
1929  Subdivision Map Act amended to allow cities and counties to regulate subdivisions. 1937  Master Plans required for cities and counties. Precise Plans allowed for implementing Master Plans.
1955 Land Use and Circulation Elements required in General Plans.
1963  Knox-Nisbet Act adopted to create Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) for regulating boundary changes of incorporated cities.
1965 LAFCO District Reorganization Act adopted to consolidate Special District laws.             Planning and Zoning Law reorganized. “Specific Plans” permitted.
1967 Housing Element required in General Plans (effective July 1, 1969).
1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) adopted. Conservation and Open-Space Elements required in General Plans.
1971 Safety, Seismic Safety, Noise, and Scenic Highway Elements required in General Plans. Zoning and Subdivision approvals required to be consistent with General Plans. 1977 LAFCO Municipal Organization Act adopted to consolidate laws on city incorporation and annexations.
1984 Planning Law revised. Scenic Highways Element no longer required in General Plans, and Seismic Safety incorporated into Safety Element.
1985 LAFCO Cortese-Knox Local Government Reorganization Act adopted to consolidate laws on city and special district boundary changes.
2000 LAFCO Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act

Planning Terms

The Brown Act requires elected officials and appointed commissions, boards, and other public bodies to conduct the public’s business at public meetings and hearings with advance public notice.

Chartered cities are not incorporated under the general laws of the state, and consequently have broader powers than General Law cities to deviate from the state’s Planning Law . 

Infrastructure is publicly and privately maintained utilities and facilities such as roads, sidewalks, bridges, sewers, water and electrical distribution lines, and fire stations.  

A group of residents appointed by the city council or board of supervisors to consider land use planning matters. The commission’s duties and powers are established by the local legislative body and might include hearing proposals to amend the general plan or rezone land, initiating planning studies (road alignments, identification of seismic hazards, etc.), and taking action on proposed subdivisions.  

Jurisdictions and districts collect fees for funding of future publicly maintained facilities and infrastructure to mitigate expanded demand. The most common fees are for parks, traffic, and utilities.

o   School Impact Fees
The Education Code . allows school districts to charge fees for residential and non-residential new construction and expansion to offset the impacts on schools. Fees are collected when building permits issued  

The General Plan establishes policies, objectives, principles, standards, proposals, and maps for the private and public development of cities and counties within their Spheres of Influence.
o   Community Plan
A Community Plan, which is part of the Housing Element of a General Plan, focuses on a disadvantaged or isolated neighborhood within a city’s or county’s Sphere of Influence. Community Plans supplement the policies of the General Plan.

o  Specific Plan
A Specific Plan addresses land use distribution, open space availability, infrastructure, and infrastructure financing for a portion of the General Plan.  

Zoning regulations implement the General Plan by dividing a city or county into compatible use “zones” (e.g., residential, commercial industrial) and specifying development standards (e.g., lot and yard size, building height and setback).

o   Conditional Use Permit
A CUP authorizes uses not otherwise unconditionally allowed in a zone (i.e., “By Right”). CUPs require a public hearing. Approval of a CUP is not a change in zoning.

o   Density Bonus
Density Bonus is an increase in the allowable total number of dwelling units in return for the project’s providing low- or moderate-income housing.  

o   Design Review
Design Review evaluates the architectural design of the buildings and grounds of a project.

o   Floor Area Ratio
FAR is the ratio of the floor area of a building to the yard area of the lot.

o   Overlay Zone
An Overlay Zone establishes special requirements within a base zone (e.g., historical preservation, seismic/ fire/ flood hazard).

o   Planned Unit Development
A PUD establishes development standards that are specific to a project.

o   Setback
Setback is the minimum horizontal distance between two structures or between a structure and property lines.

o   Variance
A limited waiver from the property development standards of the zoning ordinance. Variance requests are subject to public hearing, usually before a zoning administrator or board of zoning adjustment. Variances do not allow a change in land use.  

o   Zoning Administrator
The Zoning Administrator is a Planning Department employee who is responsible for approving and denying minor zoning permits, including variances and CUPs.  

  With some exceptions , a subdivision is the division of improved or unimproved contiguous lots shown on the latest equalized county assessment roll for the purpose of sale, lease, or financing. Lots are contiguous even if they are separated by roads, streets, utility easements, or railroad rights-of-way. Subdivision includes condominiums  , community apartments , and stock cooperatives  

o   Tentative Map and Vesting Tentative Map
A Tentative Map is a surveyor’s diagram showing existing lots, which will be merged and re-divided, resulting new lots, and existing and new public improvements (buildings, topography, utilities, roads, etc.). Tentative Maps show the proposed development  and are required for Final Maps and may be required by a local ordinance for Parcel Maps. The initial life of a Tentative Map is typically short (two or three) years, unless off-site public improvements with multiple Maps has been approved or a Development Agreement has been approved or a state legislative extension has been adopted. “Automatic” extensions  will add additional life  to a Tentative Map. Vesting Tentative Maps “grandfather”  future changes in a local General Plan, Specific Plan, Zoning ordinance, and Subdivision ordinance. Tentative Maps are not recorded.

o   Final (Tract) Map
A Final Map is a surveyor’s diagram showing the metes and bounds (compass bearings, distances, monuments) of the property lines of five or more lots, condominiums, community apartments, and stock cooperatives. The City/County Engineer approves Final Maps. An additional approval is required by the jurisdiction’s elected officials at a public hearing. Approval must be conditioned on the immediate construction of publicly maintained infrastructure, unless it was already completed. Acceptance of dedications of land, rights-of-way, and easements may be conditioned upon completion of the construction. Lots, condominiums, community apartments, and stock cooperatives are created when an approved or conditionally approved map is filed with the County Recorder. A property tax deposit  with the county’s tax collector is required for filing with the Recorder.

o   Parcel Maps
A Parcel Map is a surveyor’s diagram showing the metes and bounds of the property lines of up to four lots, condominiums and community apartments. Construction of publicly maintained infrastructure may be deferred until building permits are issued. Acceptance of dedications of land, rights-of-way, and easements may be conditioned upon completion of the construction. Parcel Maps are approved by the City/County Engineer or the City/County Surveyor. Lots, condominiums, and community apartments are created when an approved or conditionally approved map is filed with the County Recorder. A property tax deposit or pre-payment  with the county’s tax collector is required for filing with the Recorder.  

o   Quartering  
The original Sub-divider cannot use a Parcel Map to further subdivide a lot which was originally created by a prior Parcel Map (Pratt v. Adams, 229 Cal. App. 2d 602, 1964). The original Subdivider must use a Final Map which incorporates all of the original lots. A new owner, however, may use a Parcel Map to further subdivide the subject lot.

o   Certificate of Compliance and Conditional Certificate of Compliance
Separate parcel numbers are insufficient evidence that lots were originally created in accordance with the provisions of the Subdivision Map Act and relevant local regulations (62 Op. Atty Gen. Cal. 147). Upon request from a property owner, which is typically prompted by a title insurance underwriter, a jurisdiction is required to make a determination whether or not the parcels in question are “legal” (i.e., may be sold, leased, or financed without further compliance with the Subdivision Map Act or any local ordinance). The jurisdiction will record a Certificate of Compliance if it determines the parcels were “legally” created, and will record a Conditional Certificate of Compliance if it determines the lots were not. “Illegal” lots may not be sold, leased, or financed until they are “legalized”, which can be accomplished through the subdivision process:

  • When the current owner is the original owner who created the “illegal” lots, the current SMA and current local regulations will be applicable.
  • When the current owner is not the original owner who created the “illegal” lots, the SMA and local regulations in effect at the time the current owner acquired the parcels will be applicable. Conversely, the Civil Code presumes that “legally” subdivided lots remain divided as separate and unmerged lots in the event they are assigned a single parcel number or are referenced collectively as a single parcel or lot in a deed of sale.   A Certificate of Compliance does not confer any right to develop the resulting parcels, and the parcels may be sold without providing for the infrastructure needed to service them. Subsequent development of necessary infrastructure, however, may become far more difficult to coordinate and finance (Gardner v. County of Sonoma, 92 Cal. App.4th 1055) .

o   Reserve Strip A Reserve Strip is a narrow (e.g., 12 inches wide) length of real property  along the boundary of a parcel that is dedicated “in fee”to a jurisdiction. It is typically used to limit access to public right-of-way. It is an alternative to a waiver of direct access                   rights.

California’s 57 LAFCOs are chaired by elected officials from the county and its cities                   and appointed public members. LAFCOs encourage the orderly formation of local                     governmental agencies, preserve agricultural land resources, and discourage urban               sprawl by establishing Spheres of Influence for cities and special districts within a                     county. LAFCOs also consider proposals for new city incorporations and annexation               to and de-annexation from cities.   o   Sphere of Influence   A plan for the probable physical boundaries and service area of a city, county, or district, as determined by the local LAFCO.  

  • California Environmental Quality Act CEQA requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. CEQA applies to public and private projects which must receive some discretionary approval and which may cause a direct or indirect physical change in the environment.  

o   Environmental Impact Report 
An EIR provides detailed information about the environmental effects a project is likely to have, ways to minimize the effects, and alternatives to the project.  

o   Environmental Initial Study
An EIS is an analysis of a project’s potential environmental effects and their relative significance which is used to determine whether to prepare a Negative Declaration or an EIR.  

o   Mitigation Measure
CEQA requires that when an adverse environmental impact or potential impact is identified, measures must be proposed that will eliminate, avoid, rectify, compensate for or reduce those environmental effects.  

o   Negative Declaration and Mitigated Negative Declaration
A “Neg Dec” describes why a project will not have significant environmental effects or the measures needed to completely mitigate or avoid possible effects.

o   Categorical Exemption
Exemptions from CEQA that are granted by the Secretary of Resources (e.g., in-fill    development ).

o   Statutory Exemption
Exemptions from CEQA that are granted by the state Legislature (e.g., building permits).     Check the Links below and your local jurisdiction’s website for additional information.   LINKS


o   Jurisdiction websites 

o   State Clearinghouse 

o   Land Use

o   California Environmental Quality Act o   Local Government

o   Ground Water
o   California Planners Information Network

o   Boards and Commissions 
o   Bonds and Grants
o   Departments

  • California Attorney General

o   Brown Act – Open Meetings For Local Legislative Bodies 

  • California Fair Political Practices Commission

o   Conflicts of Interest, Lobbying, Form 700