City and county Comprehensive Plans, also known as General Plans or Master Plans, are long-range plans that guide decision-making; establish rules and standards for development and improvements; and help inform residents, developers, and decision-makers. A Comprehensive Plan reflects the city or county’s vision for the future, provides direction on growth and development, and is an expression of the jurisdiction’s desired quality of life. Comprehensive Plans are common in many states and – when properly conceived, written, and implemented with relevant zoning ordinances – can provide enforceable measures that enable or require specific local climate actions. A well-written plan can also be an important first step for communities that want to advance climate action locally but have no established measures or ordinances to do so. Adopted zoning regulations that implement comprehensive plans can inform renewable energy developers of required standards and associated limitations.
Comprehensive Plan Examples:
In California, state law requires that every county and city adopt a General Plan for the physical development of that county or city. The state also recognizes the importance of local government plans in reducing emissions to achieve long-term statewide goals. A General Plan serves as the jurisdiction’s “constitution” or “blueprint” for future decisions concerning a variety of issues including land use, health and safety, and resource conservation. All area plans, specific plans, subdivisions, public works projects, and zoning decisions must be consistent with the direction provided in the relevant General Plan. In 2015, the California requirement for General Plans was revised by legislation to require climate adaptation and resilience strategies, and gave cities and counties six years to complete an update to their respective General Plans.
A General Plan is a comprehensive policy document. Many policies detailed by such plans are specific enough to be applied and carried out directly. The Ventura County (California) General Plan Update, adopted in 2020, included several policies that will be directly enforceable by regulation and by permitting or development reviews. The Ventura County General Plan included the following enforceable measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, curtail fossil fuel use or infrastructure development, and reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT)
- Requirements that discretionary development in designated Existing Communities construct roadways to urban standards and Complete Streets principles, including curb, gutter, sidewalks, and bike lanes. (Aims to reduce VMT)
- Requirements that discretionary development incorporate pedestrian and bicycle pathways, bicycle racks and lockers, ridesharing programs, transit improvements (bus turnouts, shelters, benches), and/or transit subsidies for employees or residents of the proposed development. (Aims to reduce VMT)
- Requirements that new discretionary oil wells to be located at least 1,500 feet from residential dwellings and 2,500 feet from any school. (Aims to reduce fossil fuel infrastructure development)
- Requirements that discretionary development for oil and gas exploration and production use electrically-powered equipment from 100% renewable sources and cogeneration, where feasible, to reduce air pollution and GHG emissions from internal combustion engines and equipment. (Aims to reduce GHG emissions)
- Requirements that discretionary development for oil and gas exploration activities be conditioned to require the restoration and revegetation of the site if the exploration does not result in oil and gas production facilities. (Aims to reduce fossil fuel infrastructure development)
- Requirements that new discretionary oil wells use pipelines to convey oil and produced water; oil and produced water shall not be trucked. (Aims to reduce GHG emissions)
- Requirements that gasses emitted from all new discretionary oil and gas wells shall be collected and used or removed for sale or proper disposal. Flaring or venting shall only be allowed in cases of emergency or for testing purposes. (Aims to reduce GHG emissions)
- Establishment of a Climate Emergency Council to advise the Board of Supervisors on climate action planning and implementation of the Climate Action Plan goals, policies, and programs.
- Requirements for the County to reduce GHG emissions in both existing and new development through a combination of measures, which includes: new and modified regulations, financing and incentive-based programs, community outreach and education programs, partnerships with local or regional agencies, and other related actions. (Aims to reduce GHG emissions)
- Requirements that all County-owned water supply pumps use 100% renewable-sourced electricity for water pumping, when feasible, and the County shall encourage privately owned water supply pumps to use 100% renewable-sourced electricity when feasible. (Aims to reduce GHG emissions)
In addition to enforceable measures, the Ventura County General Plan includes many other climate-related policies, several of which are for natural and working lands to help localize the food supply and encourage regenerative and organic agriculture. Included with the policies are associated implementation tools such as planning studies, reports, recommended strategies, programs, financing and budgeting approaches, governmental services or operations, inter-governmental coordination, public/private partnerships, and public outreach. See the linked Ventura County 2040 General Plan, particularly Appendix B (Climate Change) and Figure 1-2 (How to Read Implementation Programs) for more information.
Another specific example of the utility of General Plans is Johnson County, Kansas. In 2021, Johnson County began exploring the possibility of changing its Rural Comprehensive Plan and Zoning and Subdivision Regulations to allow Utility-Scale Solar Facilities in the unincorporated area of the County. In June, 2022 the county adopted amendments to the plan that addressed solar facilities by adding Sect. 9.0, Special Land Use Considerations, and Sect. 9.1, Utility-Scale Solar facilities to Part I, Chapter 2.
Unlike traditional developments where the necessary infrastructure already exists, the impacts created by solar facilities are more readily apparent on the character of the surrounding environment where they are constructed. Maintaining the feel of the countryside is often a prime concern for residents in rural areas where large-scale solar facilities would likely be established, altering familiar rural views. Similarly, site lighting, construction noise, and routing maintenance or operations could diminish the existing rural atmosphere. The majority of land in unincorporated Johnson County is zoned RUR, Rural District, which allows agriculture and residential use at very low density. Solar facilities can be sited more easily in the RUR zoning districts than anywhere else, since the majority of suitable large land parcels (more than 80 acres) are in the Rural District. A typical ambiance for these farming locales is one of fields and pastures surrounded by ponds, streams, and wetlands as part of the setting and homes scattered throughout.
Solar facilities in Johnson County could be large in scale, occupying hundreds to thousands of acres with intense site coverage where large-scale solar facilities usually cover more than half the site. Such facilities would very likely be in operation for long durations of time with the minimum usually between 20 to 40 years. The amended Rural Comprehensive Plan included goals, recommended policies, and associated action steps to manage potential adverse effects and to protect unincorporated areas from being overwhelmed with vast expanses of solar panels.
The Johnson County Rural Comprehensive Plan was adopted simultaneously with amended zoning regulations that implemented the plan’s recommended policies and action steps. These include development and performance standards for small, medium, and large-scale solar facilities (see link below). The standards for large-scale solar facilities in RUR zoning districts include the following:
- Conditional use permits not to exceed 25 years with a provision for a 5-year extension
- Minimum project area of 10 acres and maximum of 2,000 acres
- Maximum project “extent” of 2,560 acres (four square miles)
- Solar panel coverage not more than 70 percent of the project area
- Large-scale solar facilities must be located more than 1.5 miles from city boundaries
- Large-scale solar facilities must be located more than 1.0 miles from airports
- Large-scale solar facilities must be more than two miles from the nearest existing large-scale solar facility
- Minimum setbacks for large-scale solar facilities: 50 feet from project boundaries; 150 feet for substations and battery storage facilities; 250 feet from existing dwellings
- Maximum height limits: 10 feet from lowest edge of panels; 15 from upper edge of panels; 35 feet for other structures; and 12 feet for fencing
- Access corridors for wildlife shall be provided; permeable security fencing is encouraged to allow wildlife to pass through
- Ground cover: disturbed land, including land under and around the solar panels, shall be seeded with a revegetation seed mix based on prairie grasses and forbs native to the Midwest United States, which includes pollinator plants where compatible with site conditions
- Vegetation: large-scale solar facilities shall be designed and developed to minimize grading and to protect and preserve mature trees, stands of mature trees, treelines, streamways, ponds, and other natural features, and, in particular, remnant grasslands and woodlands
- Screening: detailed screening requirements and options are described in the regulations (see link below)
- Prohibition of outdoor storage of equipment or materials
- Detailed standards for exterior lighting, glare, noise, and signage are described in the regulations (see link below)
- Groundcover and Screening Installation and Maintenance: all grading, groundcover, berms, fencing, trees and other forms of landscaping shall be installed within one (1) year of approval of the Conditional Use Permit. Berms and fencing shall be continuously maintained and repaired or replaced if damaged. Groundcover and landscaping shall be continuously maintained and replaced if dead.
- Annual Compliance Report: submit a yearly report indicating the state of compliance with the approved conditional use permit, including the Development Plan and all approved stipulations
- Decommissioning and Reclamation: detailed requirements are described in the regulations (see link below)
Finally, in Prince George County, Virginia, its Comprehensive Plan was amended in 2020 to include a “Solar Energy Facility Siting Policy” that provides guidelines for placement and design of new solar energy facilities in the County. The amendment to the Comprehensive Plan followed a 2017 zoning amendment that allowed the accessory use of solar facilities and small and large-scale solar energy facilities in all zoning districts, except for the heavy industrial district where they are permitted by right.
Climate Action Plan (CAP) examples:
When Oakland, California updated its Equitable Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2020, it included consideration of life cycle emissions in establishing requirements for building deconstruction to facilitate materials reuse, to eliminate single use plastics in food preparation, and a new code that limits embodied carbon emissions in materials used for new building construction.
In Menlo Park, California a new 2030 CAP was adopted in July 2020. The 2030 CAP outlines six initial strategies to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Of the six strategies, the city council prioritized two GHG reduction efforts for staff to start work on during 2021: electrification of 95% of existing buildings by 2030 and expansion of access to electric vehicle (EV) charging citywide; a third strategy to plan for sea level rise was also prioritized.
Use General Plans or Climate Action Plans with enforceable measures to:
- Guide development of renewable energy generating facilities
- Reduce climate emissions
- reduce climate emissions and fossil fuel use.
- Net increase in renewable energy generating facilities
- Net reductions of energy use, emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), and VMT
Time to Implement:
Four years to prepare and adopt the Ventura County Update, including time for public outreach (workshops, presentations, website for public access, assembly of advisory bodies, and public opinion surveys), multiple studies and reports, development of a vision statement and guiding principles, draft documents, public comment, etc. An additional two to four years is anticipated for complete implementation.
Ventura County Planning Division – General Plan website
Ventura County 2040 General Plan
Oakland 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan
Menlo Park 2030 Climate Action Plan
Menlo Park 2030 Climate Action Plan 2021 Progress Report
The Rural Comprehensive Plan: a Plan for the Unincorporated Area of Johnson County, Kansas. Johnson County Rural Comprehensive Plan Update (see pages 62 to 66 of the linked pdf file)
Johnson County, Kansas Updated Zoning Regulations for Solar Facilities implementing the updated Rural Comprehensive Plan (see Exhibit A, beginning on page 9)
Prince George County, Virginia – Solar Energy Facility Siting Policy
California General Plan Guidelines
California Adaptation Planning Guide
What Are Comprehensive Plans?
2040 General Plan Approved, Almost… (news article)
Climate policies, curbs on oil drilling central to Ventura County’s adopted General Plan (news article)
Children shouldn’t have to live right next to oil wells and fracking; Ventura County Supervisors pass setback rule (news article)
Menlo Park becomes first U.S. city to set goal to be carbon neutral by 2030 (news article)
Johnson County Commission amends regulations guiding solar farm developments (news article)
General Plan Update Manager:
Johnson County, KS
Director of Planning, Housing and
Planning and Zoning Division
Prince George County
County Administration Building, 1st Floor
Post Office Box 68 – 6602 Courts Drive
Prince George, VA 23875