Since 1920, California law has enabled cities and counties to adopt comprehensive, long-term general plans. At that time, the general plan was only an advisory document, because no law required that general plans actually be followed or implemented. In 1962, the Board of Supervisors adopted the first Santa Rosa Area General Plan in partnership with the City of Santa Rosa. That plan was later updated in 1968.
In 1971, State legislation transformed the general plan into the constitution for all future development, mandating that zoning and subdivision regulations conform to the general plan, and that all land use approvals be found consistent with its overall goals, objectives, and policies. The first countywide General Plan was established in 1978. The Plan provided a broad countywide policy framework within which area plans established goals and policies tailored to each of the County’s diverse communities. By 1978, the County had adopted over 20 area plans. In the 1980s, three additional Specific Plans were adopted to address areas that were planned to develop with urban services, including the Airport Industrial Area, Larkfield-Wikiup, and the community of Windsor—which became the County’s ninth incorporated city in 1992.
The 1978 General Plan included land use policies intended to focus development within the urban areas, which included the eight incorporated cities. The concept of “community separators” was also first introduced in the 1978 General Plan, which maintained open space between the cities and preserve their distinct community identities along the Highway 101 corridor. A total of 9,300 acres of land considered under pressure for development were designated as community separators: areas north of Santa Rosa; areas north of Rohnert Park and south of Santa Rosa; and Meachum Hill, just north of Petaluma.
One of the challenges of the 1978 General Plan was that the Land Use and Open Space and Resource maps were not parcel specific and used a variety of different terms. The scale of the General Plan Land Use Map in particular made it difficult to distinguish between land use categories. Area plans had many similar policies but sometimes used slightly different metrics that made their implementation difficult. For example, one area plan included setbacks from the top-of-bank of streams, while another measured setbacks from the dripline of the riparian trees. The variations between area plans created confusion and perceived inconsistencies that were to be addressed in the next update. In 1981, another update of the General Plan was initiated to provide a more integrated comprehensive policy framework and parcel-specific General Plan mapping to ease in the implementation.