The Basics of Land Use Planning

The Power to Plan
Local agencies derive their authority to shape their communities through planning and land use from the “police power.” The source of this power is both the federal and California constitutions. The police power is broad and elastic and entitles cities and counties to take actions to protect the public’s general health, safety, and welfare. However, in most cases local regulations may not conflict with overriding state law.
Local authority to regulate land use can expand to meet the changing conditions or priorities of society. Thus, actions that might not have been thought of as part of the general welfare a century ago (for example, curbing sprawl or promoting affordable housing) can fall within its purview today.

Courts have found that a wide variety of local concerns fall within this authority, including maintaining socio-economic balance, aesthetic values, property values, residential character, and growth management.

The Planning Process
Planning, at its most fundamental level, refers both to a process and a profession: Local officials and residents use a collaborative process to determine the location, character, level and intensity of development that will be permitted or encouraged throughout their community, as well as the areas to be conserved and protected from development. The term “planning” may also refer to the professional discipline whose practitioners possess technical information, analytical tools and problem-solving approaches informed by both research and practice.

The Local Planning Framework
Cities and counties, when they plan, need to be able to consider a range of issues, from the big picture issues of how the community as a whole should grow and develop to the fine details of how particular buildings and facilities will fit in with other uses that share space on a neighborhood street.

Different planning tools have been developed to address the unique issues and considerations that occur at each of these levels. Taken together, these tools comprise a framework of local planning that officials can draw upon to manage the development and realize the collective vision for the future of their
community and its residents.

The planning framework works along a continuum depending on the scope and focus of a particular set of decisions. Planning guides decisions for a region, a community, a particular neighborhood or district, a particular development site and its adjacent uses, or the specific details of building materials and design for a proposed project.

City Council Members and County Supervisors
Primary responsibility for making land use and planning decisions rests with the individuals elected by the voters to serve on the governing boards of cities and
counties. In the case of cities, the mayor and city council members make the
decisions. The members of the county board of supervisors – five officials elected by district from throughout the county – make decisions for counties. While they may delegate some functions to staff or advisory bodies, final authority rests with the representatives elected by the public.

The Planning Commission
The planning commission is a permanent committee made up of five or more individuals who have been appointed by the governing body (the city council or board of supervisors) to review and act on planning and development matters.
While the governing body may choose to keep this function,many cities and counties have chosen to establish separate planning commissions. Commissions have authority to overseethe development and review of the local general plan and other plans, policies and ordinances related to land use. They also review (and sometimes decide) land use and development applications and proposals in the same manner as a board of zoning adjustments

Commissioners serve at the will of the city council or board of supervisors, so commission membership may change in response to changes in those bodies.
Planning commission actions can be appealed to the governing body, which can uphold the commission’s decision, overturn it, modify it, or send it back for further study.

The Role Of The Planning Commission

  • Acts as an advisory board to the governing body on all planning and development issues.
  • Reviews development applications and makes factual findings on a case-by-case basis to assure consistency with the provisions of the general plan and other local plans, policies and ordinances.
  • Functions as the primary decision-making body for many proposals (subject to appeal to the governing body, which retains final authority).
  • Through public hearings and other means, provides a key venue for residents and other community stakeholders to learn about planning issues and project proposals and provide their views.

Other Local Planning Bodies and Officials
Many cities and counties have established other advisory boards or commissions or assigned officials to assist the agency in making decisions on planning and land use issues. In larger jurisdictions, these bodies and appointees bring additional expertise into the decision-making process while allowing the planning commission and elected officials to focus on broad planning issues. They also provide an additional way to engage the public in planning and land use decisions, both through service as an appointee and through public meetings and hearings conducted by the body. Some of these other advisory bodies and appointed officials include:

Zoning Administrator
A local body or hearing officer authorized to consider requests for variances to zoning requirements, created by ordinance and appointed by the governing body.

Zoning Appeals Board
An optional appointed body that hears and decides matters relating to the application of the zoning ordinance and considers appeals of the zoning administrator’s

Design Review Commission Or Architectural Review Board
An optional commission appointed by the governing body to review development proposals to determine consistency with local adopted design goals, policies, guidelines, standards, and ordinances.

Historic Preservation Or Architectural Heritage Commission
An optional commission appointed by the governing body charged with determining consistency with local historic and cultural resource preservation goals, policies, standards and ordinances.

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