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 desired quality of life. Comprehensive Plans are common in many states and, when properly conceived and written, can provide enforceable measures that enable or require local climate actions. A well-written plan can also be an important first step for communities that want to advance climate action locally.
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 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 General Plans.
A General Plan is a comprehensive policy document. Many policies 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 project (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. (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. (reduce VMT)
- Requirements that new discretionary oil wells to be located a minimum of 1,500 feet from residential dwellings and 2,500 from any school. (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. (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. (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. (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. (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. (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. (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) for more information.
Climate Action Plan (CAP) examples:
When Oakland, CA 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, CA 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 to reduce climate emissions and fossil fuel use
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
California General Plan Guidelines
California Adaptation Planning Guide
What Are Comprehensive Plans?
2040 General Plan Approved, Almost…
Climate policies, curbs on oil drilling central to Ventura County’s adopted General Plan
Children shouldn’t have to live right next to oil wells and fracking; Ventura County Supervisors pass setback rule
Menlo Park becomes first U.S. city to set goal to be carbon neutral by 2030
General Plan Update Manager: