Land Use Laws in California: Planning, Development and Zoning Regulations

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In California, state and municipal governments dictate land use laws and control regulations for evaluating their short and long-term impacts in the areas of location. Development and infrastructure changes like transportation, water and electricity demand can influence a community in unexpected ways beyond the immediate outcomes and impact the quality of life for its citizens socially, environmentally and economically. Having a general plan in play to navigate all the overlapping regulations and guidelines of these laws can make understanding and following them easier. It benefits local communities by promoting superior projects, streamlining and integrating processes and improving access and use of the resources available.

Requirement to Develop General Plans

According to California Government Code Section 65300, the law requires planning agencies to adopt a general plan of a city or county’s physical development and also that of land outside its boundaries, which relates to that development. The purpose is to lay out a community’s goals and express public policy relative to the distribution of public and private land use in the future. These policies affect building decisions, energy efficiency and the development of infrastructure.

What a General Plan Covers

A general plan is a collection of topic categories. The first category, land use, describes the distribution of land for housing, business, industry, education, public buildings and grounds, open space, waste disposal facilities, and other public and private uses. The second category, circulation, describes the general location and amount of current and proposed major thoroughfares, transportation routes and other local public utilities and facilities. The third category, housing, is an assessment of present and future housing needs for the community and the creation of policies for providing adequate shelter and includes action programs to suit that purpose. This element has updates every five to eight years, in accordance with California law and a schedule set by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Other general plan elements are:

  • Conservation: The use, conservation and development of natural resources in the community. 
  • Open Space: This element details plans and measures for the long-range preservation and conservation of open space lands for the conservation and the managed production of natural resources, agriculture, outdoor recreation, and public health and safety. 
  • Noise: This element forms the basis for land use distribution determinations by identifying and appraising noise within the community. 
  • Safety: These are policies associated with drought, seismic, geologic, flood and wildfire hazards.
  • Environmental justice: The reduction of exposure to pollution, air quality improvement, public facilities promotion, improved access to food and housing and increased physical activity in disadvantaged communities.
  • Optional elements: These depend on the county or municipality of the plan and include air quality, health, equity, community development, water, climate change and resiliency. 

How much discussion occurs on these issues depends on the conditions and their importance to the applicable city or county. If something isn’t relevant to a particular area, the general plan may mention it, but doesn’t necessarily have to address it. Some jurisdictions may also combine elements as appropriate to local context.

What Is Land Use?

The most basic planning decisions in a city or county start with land use. Plans for a parcel of land can impact the future of its location, the surrounding areas and the community as a whole. This element is a reflection of the vision of the community and promotes accessible and fair distribution of different land uses through residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and open space plans. Planners can also use this element as a tool to improve public health, reduce infrastructure costs, enhance local economies, address long-term environmental issues, and resolve conflicts and identify trade-offs in land use decisions.

According to California Government Code Section 65302(a), elements must designate the proposed distribution, location and land use for:

  • Business, industry and housing.
  • Open space, such as land for agriculture, watersheds, natural resources and recreation. 
  • Facilities and opportunities for recreation.
  • Facilities for education.
  • Buildings and grounds for the public. 
  • Solid and liquid waste facilities. 
  • Greenways.
  • Timberland production zones. 
  • Potential flood plains mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Water Resources or by local insurance companies.
  • The military.
  • Additional categories for public and private uses.

Regulating Land Use

California regulates land use locally, both directly and indirectly. Elements that can be subject to regulation include:

  • The use and disposal of state-owned lands.
  • General plan requirements.
  • Redevelopment law.
  • The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires government agencies to inform the public about the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects.
  • The Subdivision Map Act, which regulates and controls the improvement and design of subdivisions and installation of streets and other improvements in a subdivision. It also protects the general public and purchasers of subdivided lands from fraud and exploitation.
  • The Coastal Commission, which oversees development on the coast and its environmental impact and or public access to coastal waters.
  • The requirement of consistency with zoning to the jurisdiction’s general plan.

Direct or indirect regulation of the general plan depends on several factors. As counties are extensions of the state, California law directly impacts them. General law regulates most California cities, which also implement laws local to that area. As an example, California Government Code Section 65800 is the zoning law for all counties and general law cities, but its implementation doesn’t occur at the state level. The individual jurisdiction of a county or a general law city implements the law within its authority.

What Is Zoning?

Zoning divides a community into districts and their different requirements. It determines what someone builds on a parcel of land and can allow for flexibility in the type of development in a particular area. As an example, zoning laws in a specific area can allow for multiple uses on one parcel, such as with a mixed use development, or allow for a menu of options, such as with a development that has retail, offices and light industrial zoning on a parcel. However, restrictive zoning laws can also occur; as an example, a county’s laws may allow only one single-family house per every three acres of land.

California law usually requires zoning to be consistent with the general plan. If the general plan changes in an area, its zoning may change as well. Zoning law can expressly include or exclude given uses, help improve public access to a benefit in the community or restrict land use for an undesirable purpose.

Zoning Ordinance Validity

For a zoning ordinance to be valid in California, its criteria must show:

  • Reason related to the public welfare: For example, a law allowing the community more comprehensive access to fresh foods by giving preferential treatment to a supermarket chain wishing to move into the area can reasonably relate to the public welfare. Public welfare can also extend beyond the jurisdiction of the zoning law. What happens in one specific jurisdiction may affect people in another. 
  • Consistency with the general plan: The text, maps and diagrams within the zoning law must show consistency with the general plan overall as it guides development. Conflicting provisions in a zoning law may undermine the general plan. 
  • Clear standards: A person of ordinary intelligence must have a clear understanding of what the ordinance entails. It cannot be vague. However, vagueness is sometimes subjective in land use ordinances, which litigation often addresses. 

Every county and municipality in California can determine what categories of zoning development it allows. These are public space, open space, agricultural, commercial, residential, industrial, mixed use and overlay zones.

Public and Open Space Zoning

Public developments are generally government-owned properties, like buildings such as city hall, police stations, libraries and schools. Public parks can also fall under this category, but some jurisdictions have a separate designation for those. Communities allow for flexibility in terms of public development designation so that local governments can respond to their needs. An example of a public development is converting an old school into a community recreation center.

Open space zoning describes land designated as having no development, but its designation is different from that of a public park. A park usually has basketball courts, restrooms, meeting centers, play areas or landscaped gardens. Open space is land in its natural state, but it may have multiple uses such as resource extraction, grazing or mining. It can also have a public or private owner.

Agricultural and Commercial Zoning

Land zoned for use as designated for the production of crops and livestock is agricultural. This type of zoning allows for structures such as barns, sheds, silos, farmhouses, pumps and windmills. In areas where agrarian developments are closer to more developed regions, this type of zoning can have limits. For example, in an area closer to a suburban neighborhood, agricultural zoning may allow for crops, but not cattle.

Commercial zoning allows for the development of retail spaces, offices and other business uses. Often, permitted commercial zones are specific in terms of what businesses an area enables and what it doesn’t. For example, a street in a city’s downtown area may have a zoning designation for retail only. Its size can factor into this decision as well. An industrial park or big-box retailer may be too much for an older, downtown area and zoning may not allow for stores over a specific square footage.

Detailed parking requirements are also usually taken into consideration when allowing for commercial zoning in an area.

Residential and Industrial Zoning

Residential development pertains to all housing, including single family homes, apartments and duplexes. In a residential zone, housing types may differ between these or be the same and can have minimum lot size and parking requirements. Depending upon the city or county, zoning laws may also allow for “granny flats,” also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs. They are self-contained units separate from the main dwelling, but located on the same parcel. In 2019, California lawmakers streamlined the process for building these units with Assembly Bill 68 due to a severe housing shortage.

Industrial zones create a broad range of uses for businesses with designations of “light” and “heavy” industries. A business zoned for light industry typically produces smaller consumer goods. Examples of this are bakeries, breweries or furniture upholsterers. Heavy industrial businesses, like refineries and plants, are much larger in terms of equipment and facilities, and can employ thousands of people. Buffer zones of open space, light industry or even a highway usually separate heavy industry development from other areas.

Mixed Use and Overlay Zoning

A mixed-use designation allows for multiple zoning in the same area or on a parcel. In recent years, California has seen many new developments with apartments or condominiums above and retail shops at street level. A development with a mixed-use designation can have units specifically for living or working or can have live/work units where the renter or owner can do both in the same space.

An overlay zone is an additional layer of zoning applied with its own specific set of regulations. This zone implements a city or county’s general plan through neighborhood-specific policy objectives and often protects special features in an area such as historic buildings, waterfronts or wetlands. An overlay zone can also promote specific development projects, including mixed-use and waterfront developments, affordable housing or housing along transit corridors.

Historic Zoning Designation

In California, homes and buildings over 50 years old can receive a historic zoning designation. For example, LA County’s Historic Preservation Program has criteria and procedures to maintain, designate and preserve landmarks and historic districts throughout the county. These regulations can prevent any alterations to structures within a zone, except for repair and restoration in keeping with the historic plan.

Federally, the National Register of Historic Places is the official list of properties and landmarks deemed worthy of preservation. The register lists properties, including districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and cultural value. Some examples of this in California are the Pasadena Rose Bowl, Carroll Avenue in Los Angeles or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

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