Specific Plans

What is the Purpose of Specific Plans?

In a previous post, we talked about the General Plan Land Use and Zoning Classifications providing the framework for the potential development uses on a property.  Zoning standards will typically dictate the allowable heights, density, property line setbacks, minimum lot sizes, lot dimensions, and other possible elements.  And the zoning classifications for a specific property would be guided by the General Plan land use designation.

In some cases, a City or County will support and approve a Specific Plan for a property.  Particularly for large master planned communities, a Specific Plan will essentially create its own zoning specific to that property.  For example, let’s say that the General Plan land use designation and the zoning for a 300-acre parcel limits the density to 4 homes per acre.  An approved Specific Plan could allow for the same overall density, or 1,200 homes, but the Specific Plan may provide for a variety of land uses ranging from 4 homes per acre up to 20 homes per acre.  Or, maybe the Specific Plan allows for more than 1200 homes and a wide variety of land uses, including some commercial uses.

Specific Plans are also being approved on smaller infill projects as small as one acre.  The idea is that the City may support a proposed use on an infill site but does not have zoning standards to accomplish the objective.  And rather than granting multiple variances to approve a project, the Specific Plan will provide its own zoning for that specific parcel.

One reason that a City would support and approve a Specific Plan is that the new zoning would provide benefits to the community.  The large master plan may include public facilities and sports parks that are needed by the City.  Or, the variety of home types can be of value to broader range of home buyers.  Some cities will proactively suggest the Specific Plan process to a developer, with the understanding that such a plan will provide community-wide benefits.

If you have comments or questions, we welcome you sharing below.

John Kaye has over 30 years experience within the land development and homebuilding industries, having held senior management positions with The Irvine Company, Koll Real Estate Group, and Brookfield Homes. As a developer, John has overseen the land acquisition, entitlements, and development of master planned communities, residential tracts, urban infill sites, and land assemblages. His experience and skill sets include land acquisition, land brokerage, project management, market analysis, finance, and strategic planning.

    1 Comment

  1. jack hartung
    May 29, 2019


    Why would you need a specific plan for a small infill site? In what situation would a zone change not be enough to allow for new use?

    I have a 2 acre site in Orange County that has a neighborhood commercial use designated in the GP and Zoning. I what to get permit for a private school and have be told I need to change GP and Zoning. If you do a specific plan, can General Plan and Zoning change be avoided?

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