Every 20 years, the City of Rohnert Park embarks on a two-year project to formulate a general plan for how the city should evolve over the next two decades. The last plan, adopted in the year 2000, covers the time period through 2020 so in April, 2018, the city kicked off the update to the new plan.
Per state requirements, every city and county in California is mandated to have a general plan, although Rohnert Park’s plan tends to be more robust and cover more than the general requirements. It is meant to give a long-term blueprint for the city’s future and provide guidance to direct future land use and resource decisions. The plan covers a comprehensive range of topics including social, economic, infrastructure and natural resources and encompasses everything from transportation, to land use, to community facilities, economic development and more.
“One of the general plan elements includes land use, including where the residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional property goes and that corresponds to the zoning ordinance,” says Jeff Beiswenger, Planning Manager for Rohnert Park. “It maps out land use portions and looks at population density, which areas are single family or multi family, where a neighborhood shopping center or regional shopping center should go – it defines all that stuff. The city of Rohnert Park is built on a neighborhood unit principle where at the middle of every neighborhood there’s a park and a school and so that’s an essential premise of the Rohnert Park general plan – that it’s family friendly and has the amenities that are attractive to families.”
The land use element also defines urban growth boundaries and ensures that the city doesn’t grow too fast. The housing element confirms that the city is in compliance with state housing laws and outlines how it will provide housing to current and future residents.
“The economic development element is new this year,” says Beiswenger. “It’s a really important topic for the city. It’s not required by state law but we’re adding this optional element. It’s basically your whole strategy for how you address economic development, including where new businesses are going to go, where the city wants them to go, how we are going to help foster an environment for existing businesses and how we are going to help new businesses come in. It will also cover which areas we want to expand. Do we want to target more tourism? Do we want to build more hotels? That all gets covered in the economic development element.”
Fiscal health is also covered in the general plan to ensure adequate funding for public services and public safety, as well as emergency preparedness for disasters such as fires, earthquakes or flooding.
“The general plan covers everything you need to have a nice, healthy city,” says Beiswenger.
While there are many other plans that cover different city planning aspects, the general plan develops the overview to which all other plans must be consistent with.
The first step the city has taken in going through the general plan update process is hiring a consulting firm, Mintier Harnish, which specializes in planning, development, land use and environmental issues for communities. The firm collaborates with the city to first evaluate existing conditions, identify opportunities, and do a demographic analysis. Once the baseline data gets compiled, which is currently in process, a series of public workshops will be offered to get the community’s input on the city’s vision and its issues. That will most likely take place by the end of this summer.
Priorities for the general plan will then be established and alternative land use scenarios with be identified and evaluated for several opportunity areas. A first draft of the general plan will then be created and reviewed in 2019 by the city council and planning commission. By late 2019, a program environmental impact report will assess the potential environmental impacts associated with the draft general plan. Finally, the new general plan will be adopted by spring, 2020.
Throughout the process public outreach and community input will take place, as well as outreach to key stakeholders and interest groups such as developers, Sonoma State University, the Chamber of Commerce and housing interest groups.
The general plan is not a static document but gets updated as unanticipated changes happen. The plan adopted in 2000 has gone through several renditions over the last 20 years. In fact, the city is on the 8th edition of that general plan. When the document was created, the city hadn’t anticipated the major economic downturn that would happen several years later. Because of that recession, many of the building developments that had been planned for are only being built now. In addition, the 2000 general plan did not account for the Graton casino being built, nor the SMART train starting operations.
“Because of the economic slowdown that we experienced, we’re actually just now building a lot of the projects that were called for in the 2000 general plan,” says Beiswenger. “All those houses in the university district that you see being built right now, those were anticipated for a very long time. The inception of that idea to develop that area dates back to the 2000 general plan.”
Changes in state laws such as new housing requirements or new ways that transportation impacts should be measured are also reasons the plan needs to be continually revised. Another new and significant, factor that will be addressed in this general plan that did not appear in the last one from 2000 is climate change. The state now requires cities to address climate change in their general plan and commit to reducing greenhouse gasses and using alternative energy sources.
“As planners we love general plans,” says Beiswenger. “I think it’s a really great opportunity to get the collective vision from the community. This is the opportunity for people that live in Rohnert Park, for the city council, the elected representatives, the planning commission, to all have their say over what the city is going to look like, and it’s very exciting.”