Marin County Sets New Standard for General Plans

Marin County completed a comprehensive update of its general plan in November 2007.  Over the course of many years and more than 100 workshops and community meetings, residents made clear that the plan should be a blueprint for a sustainable future.  SMW advised the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission in developing the Marin Countywide Plan (CWP).  The CWP is a plan built on the core principles of sustainability, including model policies and programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, reduce the community’s ecological footprint, and ensure the availability of workforce housing. 

This month, the American Planning Association awarded the Marin County Sustainability Program the prestigious National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation for 2008.  The program, launched in 1999, establishes a progressive model for incorporating sustainable planning into all aspects of the community's long-term growth including habitat restoration, locally provided food supplies, green building, green business and energy, and affordable housing.

California law establishes specific requirements for the topics that must be addressed in a general plan but allows communities considerable latitude to address those topics in a way that best directs their own future.  Marin took advantage of this opportunity for flexibility by structuring the plan around three elements that are often considered the core pillars of any sustainability plan: 

  • Natural Systems and Agriculture
  • Built Environment
  • Socioeconomic

The County used these elements as the organizing principle for the plan.  Within these elements the County addressed the topics required by state law (Conservation, Open Space, Land Use, Circulation, Housing, Noise, and Safety) as well as other topics including Agriculture, Economics, Energy and Green Building, Child Care, Public Health, Diversity, Environmental Justice, and Arts and Culture.  In the course of reviewing and refining the CWP, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors drew on the planning expertise of SMW to deliver a plan encompassing Marin County residents' sustainability goals.

Ecological and Carbon Footprint Analysis

The plan’s starting point is an assessment of the County’s ecological and carbon footprints.  The CWP is one of the first general plans in the nation to take this approach.  Marin compared its footprint to other counties and to communities in other parts of the world.  Finding that the ecological footprint of Marin County residents exceeds that of the average American, the CWP set a goal of minimizing the County’s footprint. The footprint analysis measures the amount of land and water required to support the average local resident.  For example, the plan estimates that the largest component contributing to the County’s ecological footprint is “energy land,” or the area of unharvested forest required to absorb the carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels.  The plan’s policies and programs seek to reduce Marin’s ecological footprint through many policies that promote reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Basic Building Blocks of the Plan

Planning Sustainable Communities is the overarching theme of the Marin Countywide Plan and one of the guiding principals is to “link equity, economy, and the environment locally, regionally, and globally.”

Each section of the Plan is organized to answer the following questions:

  • What are the desired outcomes? These discussions lay out the Plan’s Goals and Policies.
  • How will results be achieved?  This includes the Plan’s implementing programs.
  • Why is it important? These discussions focus on how specific Goals and Policies in the Plan promote the “Three E’s” of sustainability – social Equity, Economy, and the Environment.

At the end of each section there are three tables. First, a matrix shows how each goal relates to  sustainability’s guiding principles. Second, a list of indicators and targets shows how the County will track progress towards the goals in that section. Finally, an implementation chart details the implementation plan for each program in the section.

The result is a general plan that is highly readable and user friendly, which supports the County’s mission to encourage meaningful participation in governance.

Innovative Policies and Features

The CWP includes many innovative policies.  Some of the highlights include:


  • Because traffic congestion is consistently one of the County’s greatest issues of concern, the CWP requires the County to evaluate traffic-generating land uses in concert with the facilities designed to accommodate the resulting transportation needs. Transportation policies and programs were refined to ensure that the County considers sustainable alternatives to the standard road widening congestion solutions and prioritizes projects that will reduce fossil fuel use and single-occupancy vehicle trips.
  • In an effort to reduce congestion, the plan restricts residential density and commercial floor area to the low end of the density range if Level of Service Standards would otherwise be exceeded - with exceptions where necessary to promote workforce housing opportunities.

Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

  • A number of policies and programs throughout the CWP are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and planning for, monitoring and adapting to climate change. As such, the Marin plan is believed to be one of the first local general plans in the state and nation to have substantively addressed climate change issues.  The CWP thus serves as a model for other communities in addressing the impending climate change crisis in their plans. 
  • The County’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and timetables are substantially stricter than those established by California’s Assembly Bill 32, the 2006 legislation requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
  • CWP policies and programs seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce Marin’s ecological footprint through many policies promoting a reduction in vehicle miles traveled. The inclusion of affordable housing on in-fill sites is critical to this CWP strategy. For example, lower income households – which may generate almost 50% fewer vehicle trips per day than high-income households – will be allowed by the Plan at increased densities in areas with existing traffic congestion, while moderate-income housing will also be permitted at increased densities but only in areas that meet prescribed traffic congestion criteria. Additional policies reduce the potential for new commercial development and require residential development on mixed-use sites close to transit, employment, and services.


  • The need to provide for more affordable housing was one of the central concerns addressed in the Plan. In order to solve many housing problems, such as low vacancy rates, high housing costs and demand pressures, the CWP addresses population growth potential, regional housing needs, housing type and cost distribution, and use of vacant or underutilized land. Objectives of the plan address the pressing need for affordable housing while retaining Marin’s character, diversity, appearance, historical heritage, existing neighborhood character and the quality of housing.
  • The CWP establishes a Housing Overlay Designation (HOD) in eleven specific areas.  The purpose of the HOD is to encourage construction of units to meet the need for special needs housing and for workforce housing, especially for low-income and very low-income households, in the City-Centered Corridor close to transit, employment, and services.  This will be accomplished in part though redevelopment of underutilized sites. Housing density within the HOD would be at least 25-30 units per acre. 
  • The Plan seeks to reduce demand for housing by scaling back considerably on the amount of commercial development allowed in the County.  In addition, the CWP requires a minimum percentage of residential units in all new commercial projects.

Energy and Green Building

  • The CWP calls for green-building techniques in remodels and new construction and energy-efficiency standards in excess of state requirements.
  • The Plan continues to require that the bigger the home or building, the more environmentally friendly materials and energy-efficient systems must be used.

The CWP is available for download here