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California State law requires each city and county to adopt a general plan “for the physical development of a county or city, and any land outside its boundaries which bears relation to its planning” (§65300). The California Supreme Court has called the general plan the “constitution for future development.” The general plan expresses a community’s development goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of future land uses, both public and private.
A general plan covers a broad range of issues related to the growth and development of a community. The general plan, at a minimum, must include seven elements: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, safety, and noise (Air Quality must also be addressed in for city and county general plans within the jurisdiction of the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District; see discussion of AB 170 below). A broad range of other subjects may be addressed in a general plan (either as separate elements or within one of the required elements), such as economic development, child care, community design, healthy communities, and historic preservation, and parks.
The housing element is the only general plan element subject to very detailed content requirements. The housing element must also be updated on a schedule set by the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). HCD also has the authority to review and certify housing elements. All other general plan contents are not subject to review and approval by any authority other than the city or county adopting the plan.