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Specific Plans

At a Glance

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Type: Planning or regulatory tool
Where tool is used: Downtowns/transit corridors
Timeline: Long-term
Who implements: Jurisdictions
Relative density impact: High

Specific plans are planning documents that guide the development of a particular geographic area within a city or county. They are separate from, but must be consistent with, a jurisdiction’s adopted general plan. Specific plans implement the general plan by providing a special set of planning policies and development standards. Any new developments or subdivisions within the defined area must be consistent with the specific plan. While specific plans vary in their level of detail, from providing broad policy frameworks to guiding every aspect of development and design, the distinguishing feature of a specific plan is its focus on implementation.

Precise plans are similar to specific plans, but are more loosely defined and allow communities to establish planning priorities for a defined area.

Specific plans or precise plans are often focused on downtowns and redevelopment areas that a jurisdiction wants to transform through a mix of uses, including housing. Specific plans in these locations typically call for a range of housing types at mid- to high densities, and this mix of housing often includes affordable units.

Specific plans can provide the necessary environmental review for subsequent developments in the plan area. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), any residential development project or zone change undertaken to implement a specific plan that has a certified Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is exempt from CEQA. Residential projects consistent with the general plan can avoid going through a separate and lengthy environmental review process, making the development process shorter and more predictable.1

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Key Benefits

  • A specific or precise plan can provide a tool for developing a community’s “sense of place” and making vibrant and livable neighborhoods.
  • Facilitates significant new housing development, often including affordable units.
  • Can streamline development by including new projects under the program-level EIR.
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Community Considerations

  • The specific plan process must provide opportunities for the public, including residents of the planning area, to participate in defining the vision, needs, and priorities of the specific plan.
  • Specific plans may be subject to change and future revisions.
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Community Engagement Strategies

  • Provide informational resources for your community: Interactive map showing areas covered by specific plans in each jurisdiction.
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1 Specific Plan EIRs and Exemptions for Follow-On Actions, BB&Knowledge Blog, February 19, 2014, Best Best & Krieger LLP.

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