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July 22, 2009 > What is a General Plan?

What is a General Plan?

Cities operate under the directive of a General Plan. This broad outline of the vision and goals for the foreseeable future is a lengthy and complex document used as a vital reference but often poorly understood. The City of Fremont is currently developing a new General Plan to determine Fremont's future identity. To assist with this process, Barry Miller, AICP, specialist in urban and environmental planning based in Oakland has been retained as a consultant. Mr. Miller has worked with a dozen cities over the past 20 years including a recent General Plan update for Washington, D.C.

TCV: Why do cities have a General Plan?

Miller: One reason is that it is the law. Every city and county in the State of California is required to have a plan to lay out where they are going to grow in the future. It is intended, in part, to envision public services - sewer, water, etc. - to anticipate how and where growth is going to happen and make appropriate public service plans for that growth.

TCV: Why does the State care about this? Isn't this just a community concern?

Miller: It is a community concern but the State has published General Plan guidelines that cities and counties must follow. Those guidelines stipulate that General Plans must be comprehensively updated approximately every 10 years. They may be continuously updated through an amendment process.

TCV: Why should the average citizen care about their city's General Plan?

Miller: This is a vision for the future of a city. Decisions that will be made from now through the next ten to fifteen years are going to be shaped by the maps and policies of this plan. A General Plan is important to the extent that people care about the place they live, property values, services to their homes, where parks and schools will be and how those facilities are managed. At the most basic level, there is a map in this document - future land use - that shows how every piece of property in the city may be used. This has a very real, tangible impact on the day-to-day lives of people. All aspects of life in the city are driven in some way by the policies in its General Plan.

TCV: How long does it take to create a General Plan? Where is Fremont in that process?

Miller: I would say we are about two thirds through the process. Typically, a General Plan takes anywhere from two years to five years; the average for a complete plan update is about three years. During the first year there was quite a bit of community outreach and data collection. The second year has focused on developing the policies and focusing on where the city is going, analytical work (e.g. traffic modeling, etc.) and environmental studies. In the third year, the plan is produced. We are between the second and third year beginning to write the policies, flesh out the map and designations that will appear on the map.

TCV: Does the State coordinate these plans?

Miller: The state does certify the housing element which is part of the General Plan. This is to ensure that every city is doing its fair share to meet the housing needs of the region. Coordination of land use and transportation happens at Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to see what the cumulative effect is going to be on the region's growth.

TCV: If things change drastically can a city decide to abandon its plan?

Miller: You really can't abandon a plan until you have new plan to replace it. Every year you have to review the plan to determine whether it is still current and adequate and provides sufficient direction. A report is submitted to the State that says the plan has been reviewed and a finding that it is still adequate. Cities can amend the Plan to reflect changes such as Climate Action Plans and Policies.

TCV: What happens if adjacent cities have conflicting General Plans?

Miller: This is an ongoing problem that comes down to collaboration and communication between cities. It doesn't always work but extreme conflicts are rare. Many cities have the same goals and may be competing with each other but not necessarily coordinating. For instance they may both see themselves as a shopping center for the area and only one can succeed. Conflicts are more on the economic development front than land use. The impact of traffic, residents of one city using the roads of the other, is also a typical conflict. To the extent we can, mitigation of impacts on an adjacent jurisdiction such as diversion of traffic is the goal.

TCV: Fremont has identified "Opportunity Areas" where underutilized land could be used more effectively. How does a General Plan promote this?

Miller: The General Plan can indicate the long term plan or vision for these areas and avoid short term decisions that will create interim problems.

TCV: Does the General Plan drive Specific Plans or vice versa?

Miller: For the most part, the General Plan drives Specific Plans. What the General Plan does is to comment that more direction is needed in certain areas. It says that these are areas that need more focus and policy direction.

TCV: What is a vision document?

Miller: The General Plan is more of a legal document that is a bit unwieldy. Even in small cities it can be 200 pages long. Oakland's General Plan is six or seven volumes. It is difficult to get the overall vision when using these documents. The idea of a vision document is through a colorful, graphically illustrated book of 30 or 40 pages it is easier to understand the idea of where we hope our city will be in 20 years.

TCV: Much discussion has centered on a pedestrian-oriented city, yet Fremont has developed as an automobile centered city. How will that transition be made?

Miller: This is the first step. This will make a clear statement that a pedestrian-oriented city is the way we want to go. Basic policies will say that but what is going to get us to that goal is a series of implementation actions. For example the zoning ordinance is going to have to be rewritten to include standards that are more pedestrian oriented, design guidelines for certain areas of the city, capital improvement spending will have to shift. The policy framework will guide future decisions that will slowly and incrementally reshape the city.

TCV: Will Fremont's General Plan represent a fundamental change?

Miller: I think so. There is a genuine interest in reshaping the city. I believe there will be a fundamental change in the way decisions are made after the General Plan is adopted.

TCV: Who has influenced this process?

Miller: Residents have been involved in the process, not just council and staff. Community meetings and workshops have been held to incorporate the ideas of residents and businesses. That stakeholder involvement has been very important in shaping the plan. Citizen involvement will again be solicited when public hearings are held at Planning Commission and City Council. A large Environmental Impact Report subject to public review will also be produced. That process typically takes a year.

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