While some federal laws govern the City's land use policies and regulations, the largest outside influence comes from the State Planning and Zoning Law. The California Government Code gives local governments the authority to create land use policies within their jurisdictional boundaries and the ability to create a citywide land use and policy document called the General Plan. Many cities in California are small enough that their General Plans are single volumes. Larger cities, such as San Diego, often subdivide the city into a number of community plans, or "mini" land use policy plans for more specific geographic areas.
In the City of San Diego, because of our sheer size and the diversity of our communities, there are more than 40 community plans. Within some community plan areas other, more detailed, plans have also been developed. These are called precise plans or specific plans. The community plans, all combined together, constitute the Land Use Element of the General Plan. The community plans must work as part of the General Plan and must not contain policies or recommendations that are contradictory to any element of the General Plan or to other community plans.
Community plans are not created by City staff alone. Since the 1960s, when the first community plans in the City were undertaken, Community Planning Groups have participated in the development of those plans. Most individuals become involved with land use planning when their attention is drawn to one particular issue, such as traffic congestion, or development on a vacant lot in their community. However, community members have a critical role in developing a long term vision for their community through participating in the long range planning process.
The policies and recommendations of land use plans are utilized when development on privately owned pieces of land is proposed to the City. Some proposed projects will comply with adopted zoning regulations and can be approved by City staff. Other development must undergo review through a discretionary process, which means that a decision maker such as a Hearing Officer, Planning Commission or City Council must render a decision about the project in a public setting. This decision comes after notification of the existence of the proposed project to the public, information about the project is made available to the public, and the public has an opportunity to testify at a hearing before one of the above-mentioned decision makers. The public includes the recognized planning group for that community.