General Plan Basics

What is a General Plan?

Why is the City updating its Plan?

What topics are addressed by the Plan?

How will the community be involved?

Why is the Housing Element separate from the rest of the General Plan?

What is the Schedule for the Plan Update?

How will this affect me?

What is a General Plan?

State law requires every city and county in California to prepare a “General Plan” for its future growth and development.  A General Plan covers topics such as land use, transportation, housing, open space, natural resources, and public services.  Local General Plans have been mandatory in California since the 1950s.  State law also requires such Plans to be periodically updated in response to changing conditions. 

Each General Plan includes maps expressing the community’s vision of how and where it will grow and change in the future.  The General Plan typically has a time horizon of about 20 years, giving the city an opportunity to think long-term about what it wishes to preserve and what it wishes to change.  Once a General Plan is adopted, it is used by the City Council, local commissions, and City Staff as they make day to day decisions about the community’s future.

Why is the City updating its Plan?

San Rafael’s current General Plan was adopted in 2004 and looked ahead to the Year 2020.  Thousands of people participated in that process, producing an effective, thoughtful Plan that expressed San Rafael’s values and priorities for the 16 years to follow.   While many of the policies in the 2020 Plan are still applicable, there are new and emerging issues that need to be addressed.  In 2004, smartphones were in their infancy, autonomous vehicles still seemed like science fiction, and climate change was barely in the public eye.  Many of the issues we dealt with then—such as housing affordability and traffic congestion—have only gotten worse.  New policies are needed to meet the challenges of the future.

In addition, the Census reports that only 30.3% of San Rafael residents live in the same home today that they lived in 15 years ago.  The Plan provides an opportunity for today’s residents to speak out.  The General Plan must respond to demographic changes, from the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers to San Rafael‘s increasingly diverse and multi-cultural population.  It should also respond to opportunities, like the new SMART train and resurgent Downtown.

What topics are addressed by the Plan?

By State law, the General Plan must address seven topic areas, called “elements.”  The mandatory elements are land use, transportation, housing, open space, conservation, safety, and noise.  Cities are also encouraged to adopt “optional” elements which reflect local issues.  San Rafael’s 2004 Plan included optional elements on Neighborhoods, Community Design, Economic Vitality, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture and Arts, Parks and Recreation, and Air and Water Quality.  A Sustainability Element was adopted in 2011.  The Plan’s focus is on the physical environment, and most of its policies ultimately link to decisions about growth and development.  Because the Plan has a 20-year horizon, it ensures that day to day decisions are made with a long-term perspective, taking into consideration the future of the city and its relationship to the region around it.

How will the community be involved?

Public input is an essential part of the Plan Update.  In addition to providing information on the project via this website, the City is setting set up a portal on this website for San Rafael residents to speak out on long-range planning issues.  In addition, the City Council is appointing 21 San Rafael residents and businesses (plus 21 “alternates”) to serve as a General Plan Steering Committee.  The Steering Committee will hold monthly meetings for a two-year period (2018-2019) to discuss issues relating to San Rafael’s future.  The City will also be providing direct outreach to community and neighborhood groups, advocacy groups, City boards and commissions, and other stakeholders.  A number of widely advertised “Town Hall” meetings and workshops also will be scheduled.  This website itself will provide an important means of engagement, with opportunities to weigh in on key issues through surveys and feedback forms.  You can also sign-up to receive email notification of upcoming meetings or posting of new community feedback questions.

How does this process relate to the San Rafael Housing Element?

The Housing Element is one of the required elements of the General Plan. Unlike the other elements, it must be updated on an eight-year cycle established by the State of California.  Housing Elements are also subject to State approval, and must meet very prescriptive requirements demonstrating that the City is meeting its “fair share” of the region’s housing needs.  San Rafael’s current Housing Element was adopted in 2015 and found to be fully compliant with State law in 2015.  Although an update of the Housing Element is not required until 2023, the General Plan Update must recognize the importance of housing to the quality of life in San Rafael and will reaffirm its policies and actions.  If necessary, amendments to the Housing Element may be proposed through the Plan Update.

How does this process relate to the SMART Train and the Station Area Plans done a few years ago?

In 2012 and 2013, the City prepared Station Area Plans for the areas around the SMART stations in Downtown San Rafael and North San Rafael / Marin Civic Center.   Each Plan included a vision and guiding principles, along with specific recommendations for land use, zoning, urban design, and circulation around the stations.  Recommendations from these plans will be reviewed through the General Plan Update and incorporated into the 2040 Plan as appropriate.  In addition, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District is currently leading a study to relocate the San Rafael Bettini Transit Center In conjunction with the SMART train extension to the Larkspur Ferry terminal.   The General Plan Update will be closely coordinated with this process, with the goal of making the east end of Downtown more attractive, vibrant, and accessible to residents, businesses, and visitors.

What is the Schedule for the Plan Update?

The General Plan Update will take approximately 2-1/2 years to complete.  The City is now in the first phase of the project, which includes development of the community engagement strategy (including the steering committee), evaluation of the prior General Plan and other recent plans, and preparation of a detailed work program.  The next phase—starting in 2018—includes collection and analysis of background data on the city, and initial community engagement and visioning.  This will be followed by the development of policies in late 2018 and drafting of the Plan and Environmental Impact Report in 2019.  A Draft Plan will be released in late 2019, with adoption by the end of 2019 or in early 2020.  Planning Commission and City Council hearings will be required as part of the adoption process.

How will this affect me?

The intent of the General Plan Update is not to “reinvent” San Rafael or take the city in an entirely new direction.  However, the General Plan is critically important to all San Rafael residents and businesses.  It determines how and where future growth and development may occur, and how growth will be managed to protect the quality of life in the city.  It underpins local zoning and guides the use of property throughout the city. Most San Rafael neighborhoods will not see major changes in the coming years.  Other areas may change significantly, particularly Downtown and older commercial and industrial properties.  Moreover, the Plan addresses issues that impact all of us—including traffic, jobs, housing, environmental quality, resilience, disaster preparedness, and public services.  We encourage you to check this website frequently for updates on plan proposals and ideas.

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