Permit and Resource Management Department Banner

History of the General Plan

The First General Plan

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.  

1989 General Plan

In 1989, the General Plan update included seven mandatory elements plus three optional elements were added: Agricultural Resources, Air Transportation, and Public Facilities. The primary focus of the 1989 General Plan was the preservation of the County’s agricultural and resource lands that form the scenic resources of the County. Additional policies were added to the Open Space Element for the protection of designated streams. Community separator policies were strengthened and additional Scenic Resources protections were added to include designated Scenic Landscape Units and Scenic Corridors. Allowable densities were reduced in rural areas while other areas identified as unincorporated communities were allowed higher densities.

In 1996, the Community Separator policies became the genesis of the Community Separator ballot measures that required voter approval of any changes in land use density or intensity if the cities had adopted urban growth boundaries. In 1998, an amendment to the General Plan was adopted adding another Community Separator south of Petaluma. 

The County’s efforts in preserving rural landscapes had a profound effect of encouraging the cities to adopt urban growth boundaries (UGBs) as part of their General Plan updates. Today all nine cities have adopted urban growth boundaries that were subsequently enacted by voter initiatives. The Local Agency Formation Commission has followed the County’s lead by adopting policies that mirror the city-centered growth policies of the Sonoma County General Plan. 

The Housing Element of the 1989 General Plan was updated in 2002 following a lawsuit regarding the County’s efforts to ensure affordable housing; the Housing Element update initiated the County’s award-winning Affordable Housing Program implemented in 2005. The main principal underlying the Affordable Housing Program is that everyone must participate in the Affordable Housing Program in some way—all development must either provide affordable or workforce housing on-site, pay an in-lieu fee, or provide an alternative equivalent. The County’s Housing Element has been certified by the State in two subsequent updates, due in part to the success of the County’s programs. 

General Plan 2020

In 2001, the Board of Supervisors initiated the last General Plan update, which was adopted in September 2008 and was intended to guide County policy through 2020. General Plan (GP) 2020 carries forward the goals and policies of the 1989 Plan and added new policies on biological resources, water resources, renewable energy, public safety, and diversifying the agricultural economy. A Water Resources Element was added to address water quality and water supply, primarily calling for additional monitoring and formalized watershed plans. A Biotic Resources section was added to the Open Space Element to address the growing number of designated threatened and endangered species, and expand the protections for riparian corridors to all United States Geological Survey streams. 

GP 2020 continued the principals of city- and community-centered growth, with compact boundaries and community separators, and protecting agricultural land. GP 2020 includes robust policies preventing the expansion of urban services. The Agricultural Resources Element precludes converting agricultural lands to nonagricultural uses and establishes policies to increase the economic viability of agricultural properties. The Circulation Element emphasizes alternative modes to automobiles. GP 2020 also updated eight area plans and called for repealing all others where policies have already been implemented or could be incorporated into the General Plan. Sonoma County currently has eight specific and area plans that remain in effect as follows, and one that is currently being developed:

  • Airport Industrial Area Specific Plan (update in progress)
  • Bennett Valley Area Plan
  • Franz Valley Area Plan
  • Penngrove Area Plan
  • Petaluma Dairy Belt Area Plan
  • The Springs Specific Plan (draft)
  • Sonoma Mountain Area Plan
  • South Santa Rosa Area Plan
  • West Petaluma Area Plan

Contact Information

Contact Planning by Phone
Monday – Friday
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
1:00 PM – 3:00 PM
2550 Ventura Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
38.465074, -122.723705