State Land Use Laws

Senate Local Government Committee

"Jello Without The Mold"

State Laws for Local Land Use Decisions

California’s elaborate statutes that govern land use decisions tell local officials how to proceed but rarely tell them why. Instead of focusing on results, current law concentrates on process.

State Mandated Local Planning / Development / Conservation / Boundaries / Redevelopment / Environmental Review / Paying For Public Works / Paying For Public Services / Regional Decisions / State Planning

State mandated local planning. Every county and city must adopt a general plan with seven mandatory elements: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety.

Depending on the community’s location, general plans must also contain special topics, including local coastal plans, waste management, hazardous waste, seismic hazards, floodplain management, and airport land use. Local officials can also adopt optional elements for topics that are important to their communities. The Planning and Zoning Law spells out the procedural requirements for public notices, hearings, amendments, and appeals. Unlike other states, California provides no direct and little indirect help to local planners.

Development. Local land use decisions must be consistent with the communities’ general plans: zoning, subdivision approvals, use permits, and public works. This requirement for vertical consistency gives general plans meaning and purpose. However, because of the sovereign immunity doctrine, state government public works projects and permit decisions do not have to follow local general plans. Further, state law allows school districts and special districts to override county and city general plans and zoning to carry out their own public works projects.

Conservation. Current law gives counties and cities several ways to conserve open space and agricultural land. Regulations include local subdivision and zoning ordinances that implement general plans’ policies. The Williamson Act allows landowners to sign voluntary contracts with counties, agreeing to keep land undeveloped for at least 10 years. In return for these binding contracts, landowners receive preferential assessments for their property; counties and school districts receive state subventions to offset their lost property tax revenues. State law also lets landowners preclude development by granting easements (i.e., open space easements, conservation easements, agricultural conservation easements). The California Farmland Conservancy Program, run by the State Department of Conservation, complements local efforts.

Boundaries. Controlling city limits and special districts’ boundaries controls the nature and timing of land development. Drawing the boundaries of districts and cities is more than an exercise in cartographic neatness. Local boundaries determine which local officials will control land use, collect revenues, build public works, and use eminent domain. State law gives authority over boundaries to a local agency formation commission (LAFCO) in each county. LAFCO’s approval of annexations gives landowners access to land use policies, public works, and public facilities that make development possible. Denials withhold those advantages.

Redevelopment. When they form redevelopment agencies, counties and cities get access to two extraordinary powers to fight blight: property tax increment revenues and property management powers. Using these powers, redevelopment agencies pay for the public works that attract and retain investment in areas shunned by private investors. Tax increment financing diverts revenues from other local agencies, including schools. The State General Fund backfills school districts’ revenue losses, providing a significant indirect subsidy to redevelopment projects.

Environmental review. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires public officials to document the environmental effects of their proposed decisions, and then to avoid or mitigate the projects’ adverse effects. CEQA lets public officials approve projects that have adverse effects if they document the overriding circumstances. Unlike the planning process which looks at broad categories, CEQA focuses attention on individual decisions (e.g., public works, development projects).

Paying for public works. Local officials raise the public capital needed to build and expand the infrastructure needed to develop: water systems, sewers, roads, and flood control. They use the same powers to provide community amenities: schools, parks, libraries, and public buildings.

  • Local officials repay general obligation bonds with higher property tax rates.
  • They repay revenue bonds with income from enterprise facilities.
  • Mello-Roos bonds are retired with special taxes (parcel taxes) paid by property owners. · Redevelopment agencies repay their tax allocation bonds with tax increment revenues. · Owners pay benefit assessments matched to the benefit they get from public works.Local officials make builders pay developer fees for their share of public works. The state helps with statewide bond issues and loans from the Infrastructure Bank.

Paying for public services. Three basic revenue sources pay for local public services:

  • Taxes: involuntary payments that are not related to the benefit received.
  • Benefit assessments: also involuntary, but matched to the property’s benefit.
  • Fees and charges: voluntary payments that are linked to the cost of the service.

Regional decisions. In four regions, the state has taken back land use decision-making power from counties and cities. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission controls land use decisions affecting the Bay and its shoreline. The bi-stateTahoe Regional Planning Agency sets land use policy within the Tahoe basin. The California Coastal Commission manages land use in the coastal region. Local land use decisions must conform to the plan adopted by the Delta Protection Commission.

State planning. Instead of adopting a statewide comprehensive plan analogous to a local general plan, state officials prepare about 40 functional plans to guide departments’ programs, decisions, and projects. Comprehensive plans force local elected officials to confront trade-offs between competing policy goals. Functional plans allow state departments to pursue their own ends without having to compromise with other agencies’ programs. Coordination and direction for the state’s functional plans is supposed to come from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR). State law directs OPR to coordinate state departments’ functional plans. OPR is supposed to direct state departments’ policies by issuing the Environmental Goals and Policy Report every four years. OPR’s last report came out in 1978. Because of inaction during the Deukmejian and Wilson administrations, no one coordinates these state plans nor are there statewide goals to direct them.


Committee Address