Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.
What Are Specific Plans?
Specific Plans are unique to the state of California, but come up frequently in media coverage of planning. Understanding the purpose of Specific Plans can also open a window to understanding of how planning works all over the country.
Specific Plans are a popular and frequently used planning tool unique to the state of California, so they regularly figure prominently in public discussions about planning.
Despite the regional provenance of this term, the concepts that describe Specific Plans can inform an understanding of how planning works all over the United States. Namely: understanding planning requires learning the specifics of cities and communities, which allow (or require) multiple layers of planning policy and regulations. Planners in California are no different than planners in other parts of the country in having multiple options, of varying levels of goal setting and goal implementation, as tools of the trade.
Specific Plans bridge the gap between the goals described in a General Plan (sometimes known as a Comprehensive Plan) and the regulations that implement that plan (i.e., Zoning Codes). Specific Plans build this bridge by doing both of those jobs—planning and implementing. For that reason, planners sometimes describe Specific Plans as a hybrid of planning and implementation.
It's important to note a key line of distinction: Specific Plans are not technically a part of a city's General Plan. Specific Plans stand alone, replacing the General Plan with additional detail, a more customized regulatory framework, and an emphasis on implementation that isn't possible with a General Plan.
However, a Specific Plan must be consistent with the policies laid out in a General Plan. Although there is a significant amount of legal doctrine contesting the definition of "consistency" when it comes to the various layers of planning in California, the mandate for Specific Plans to be consistent with the goals laid out in a General Plan is mentioned every time planners describe the role of Specific Plans.
The raison d'être of a Specific Plan is to provide more detail toward the implementation of the plan laid out in a General Plan, so maintaining the consistency between the two layers of planning is fundamental to that purpose.
Specific Plans tend to focus on smaller geographic areas than the General Plan—like a neighborhood, for example. Specific Plans can also focus on a single aspect of the built environment, like bike or sewer infrastructure, or a single policy issue, like affordable housing. They might also address issues that, while not mentioned specifically by the General Plan, are still consistent with the goals included therein. Specific Plans can thus vary in scope and purpose, giving them an appealing flexibility for planning purposes. The smaller scope and flexibility of Specific Plans can also enable planners to implement long-term goals and objectives on a shorter timeline, and to revisit and refine the plans of certain neighborhoods or areas on shorter timelines than allowed by the general or comprehensive planning process, which occur, at most, once a decade.
Specific Plans are understandably common among the ongoing projects of professional planners all over the state of California. Many cities will have several specific planning processes going on at any given point in time, and Specific Plans are a common source of work for private consultants.
A Specific Plan is bound by California state law to a few key concepts, including, but not limited to, the following:
Specific Plans must be vertically consistent with the General Plan and the zoning and development regulations for the area.
A Specific Plan is adopted in the same manner as a General Plan, as a legislative act with specific requirements for public hearings, documentation, and conformity with other applicable governing bodies and agencies.
All specific plans must contain a program of implementation measures, like the zoning discussed above, but also including other programs, public works projects, and financing tools. There are many possible implementing measures, and this requirement will thus vary depending on how the Specific Plan works toward the goals of the General Plan.
In addition to consistency with the General Plan, Specific Plans must be consistent with the Airport Land Use Plan, should one exist for the area.
The Specific Plan can be a stumbling block for planning comprehension among members of the public, especially when Specific Plans are themselves examples of how negotiable distinctions between each layer of planning can be. Part of that slippage in clarity of definition is caused by the variety of euphemisms and misnomers used by planners in place of the words "Specific Plan." Some of the misunderstanding is caused by the existence of so many kinds of plans, even if some of them are completely distinct in purpose and method from Specific Plans. In California, Specific Plans are frequently confused for Community Plans, Community Plan Implementation Overlays, Area Plans, Neighborhood Plans, and Master Plans, to name a few examples.
Specific Plans share common traits with all of these other kinds of plans, but the key distinctions between them can be found in how each relates to the General Plan. Community Plans and Specific Plans, for example, both plan the future of a particular area at a finer level of detail than is provided by the General Plan. Community Plans, however, are a component of, and included in, General Plans. A Specific Plan stands alone and separate from the General Plan. Community Plans also lack the emphasis on implementation that is the Specific Plan's reason for existence.
Perhaps most importantly, Specific Plans are intended to ensure certainty for the various parties interested in the outcomes of planning and implementation. Public agencies and developers use Specific Plans to refine the vision and development potential of a particular tract of land or part of the city without having to complete an extensive site-specific analysis and approval process.
This specificity can mean everything from setting limits on the size and density of development to the form of new buildings—all factors for which both developers and the public desire certainty. Specific plans achieve an additional measure of certainty through zoning regulations, subdivisions regulations, design guidelines, development agreements, and the design and capacity of public facilities and infrastructure. Specific plans can use regulatory power to either provide greater flexibility in development regulations or enforce stricter rules, depending on the desired effect.
Public agencies use Specific Plans to set realistic development expectations while also signaling the big picture of the plan and vision for a particular area in a city. Developers, in turn, use that information to determine where and what to build.
The extent of the powers of a Specific Plan can become very legalistic and technical. For more information, see "The Planner’s Guide to Specific Plans," published by the Governor's Office of Planning and research, most recently in 2001.