California General Plans: What They Mean For Legacy Pipeline Management

March 2013, Vol. 240, No. 3

Tan Hoang, AICP, and Tom Burns, P.G., Science Applications International Corporation

Comprehensive land use planning gives local residents and interested stakeholders a chance to influence the management of future, anticipated community growth. But for pipeline owners, this planning process can carry other benefits and risks.

California is one state that mandates local governments to implement long-term comprehensive land use planning with the adoption of General Plans (in most other states they are referred to as Comprehensive Plans).

General Plans are essentially blueprints for structured long-term land-use management associated with projected population growth, which include detailing areas with adequate/inadequate infrastructure and areas that offer development challenges. In the case of active utilities and legacy pipeline management, General Plans can serve as informational resources for residents and stakeholders regarding the existence of such transmission facilities within communities and provide development guidance in case of right-of-way (ROW) encroachment or similar encounters.

What Are General Plans?
General Plans serve two main purposes: (1) detail current demographic, land use, and development trends; and (2) establish the policy framework for future growth based on these existing trends. This framework is essentially a comprehensive growth strategy made up of goals (i.e., broad objectives that support the community’s long-term vision), policies that guide those goals, and implementation measures that achieve those policies. Updated approximately every 20 to 30 years, General Plans are drafted in an open community-wide forum designed to solicit comments and participation from all members of the public.

California requires comprehensive planning at the local level, so it has mandates for community topics (or general plan elements) that each local government must include. Counties and incorporated cities must adopt seven basic elements at a minimum:

1. Land use
2. Circulation (i.e. transportation)
3. Housing
4. Conservation
5. Open space
6. Noise
7. Safety

Communities may adopt additional elements depending on their values and long-term vision, such as issues pertaining to agriculture, cultural resources and historic preservation, economic development, or energy. However, every element must be compatible with other elements and with the General Plan as a whole; so in other words, policies in one element should not conflict with policies in another.

The State of California Planning and Zoning Law (Government Code Section §65000 – §66037) provides topics that communities should include within specific general plan elements. With regard to utilities and utility easements, state statutes identified Circulation and Open Space Elements as appropriate sections, but in a sample of General Plans, many communities either didn’t discuss these resources at all or discussed them in other sections. For example, Merced County included a discussion about local utilities within its Public Facilities and Services Element.

Utilities Elements
Huntington Beach, Palm Desert, Sacramento, and Woodside are a few California communities that adopted separate Utilities Elements to address natural gas, transmission facilities, and their impacts to local residents. Since there are no state guidelines for adopting non-basic elements, the contents of Utilities Elements vary among these communities. For Sacramento, natural gas services are included in the “Energy Resources” section of its General Plan, which identifies one policy (Policy U 6.1.1) that recommends the City partner with “local utility providers to ensure that adequate natural gas services are available for existing and newly developed areas.” The rest of the section describes the City’s plan to promote energy efficiency and greater renewable energy use.

The communities of Palm Desert and Woodside, on the other hand, discuss in more explicit terms the location of natural gas transmission pipelines within their respective communities. Palm Desert also includes information regarding the general nature of the pipelines, pipeline pressure, size and composition. Huntington Beach goes a step further to state the status of its natural gas provider’s plans for future upgrades. Due to possible security concerns and data restrictions, none of these Utilities Elements include maps of active transmission facilities, though general street locations of the alignments are helpful for development planning in those areas.

Discussion content of Utilities Elements varies among each community, but much of the discussion revolves around current transmission facilities and ensuring the availability of reliable services for future development. With regard to legacy facilities, such as abandoned pipelines, rarely is there mention of the possibility that such facilities exist nor what the procedure is for dealing with them if found. In large oil field development communities like Kern and Ventura counties, abandoned oil and gas wells represent a potential environmental hazard. Consequently, both counties include policies in the Energy Resource Elements of their General Plans to identify these abandoned facilities and mitigate any impacts.

General Plans provide land use planners and local governments an opportunity to discuss utilities with residents and stakeholders. However, communities that actually utilize this opportunity seem to be the exception rather than the rule. There are many potential benefits to communities, utility owners, and current and former pipeline owners for this discussion to occur in the general plan forum.

First, communities benefit by knowing the identity and description of the infrastructure and utilities within their jurisdictional boundaries, especially those that are underground and therefore out of sight. A general plan forum provides an opportunity for community members and stakeholders, including city planners and engineers, local developers, utility or other similar service providers, safety officials, and residents, to review the utility information. Since this forum includes discussions regarding multiple planning issues, stakeholders can relate utility information to other topics. For example, areas that are planned for growth may need new water and sewer lines installed, or there may be a proposed policy for undergrounding overhead electric transmission lines. The general plan process allows for many of these types of scenarios to be discussed.

Second, via the general plan process, current and former pipeline owners obtain information on both short and long-term third-party development projects within these communities, some of which may potentially impact their pipelines and ROWs. Rather than relying on notification from Underground Service Alerts or through utility surveys, pipeline owners can anticipate potential impacts to specific portions of their facilities and plan accordingly by working proactively with project stakeholders.

With pipeline information (location, status, depth, etc.) being circulated between stakeholders, there is a greater possibility that it will be integrated into future planning and engineering documents. After a General Plan is updated, subsequent planning documents (e.g., Specific Plans, Capital Improvement Plans) are tiered from its contents, which increase the likelihood that pipeline information will be incorporated into such plans. In addition, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are increasingly serving an important role in the land use planning process for cities and counties. Once information, such as the location of legacy pipelines, is included in a land use planning GIS, the information exists in perpetuity and can be cascaded to other tiered planning and project specific documents.

A somewhat worst-case scenario for both pipeline and project owners occurred in a San Joaquin Valley community where construction crews installing sewer lines, storm drains, and water mains encountered abandoned pipelines that were not included in the project’s original plans. These pipelines and the associated soil and ground water contamination had to be remediated at a significant and un-forecasted cost to the former pipeline owner before regularly scheduled work could be resumed. In addition, the former pipeline owner received unwanted publicity as result of this incident. These types of delays cost the project owners and stakeholders both time and money, costs which could have been avoided had information regarding the abandoned pipelines been readily available. For delays like this, project owners may attempt to recoup unforeseen costs from the pipeline owners, which provide further incentive to pipeline owners to make information regarding their abandoned facilities known to project stakeholders.

The State of California adopted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970 that requires the identification of environmental impacts and any feasible mitigation measures pertaining to development projects through the drafting of accompanying environmental review documents. Accordingly, in addition to adopting General Plans, communities must also adopt accompanying CEQA compliance documents, which typically take the form of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) to evaluate the environmental impacts related to their future growth plans.

Every topic addressed in a General Plan must be evaluated for any potential environmental impacts. For utilities, the EIR might disclose the impacts related to the construction, use, and potential releases from transmission facilities. For Sacramento, the General Plan EIR discusses potential impacts related to its natural gas transmission pipelines within the Hazards and Hazardous Materials and Public Utilities Elements and how the City proposes to prepare for those impacts, including the use of additional public safety guidance documents and specific cleanup procedures. Regarding legacy pipelines, environmental documents typically identify the lines and establish mitigation measures to be used when they or any associated remnant contamination are encountered.

General Plans offer an opportunity for current and former pipeline owners to participate in a community’s comprehensive planning process. By including information regarding pipeline facilities, current and former pipeline owners can reduce their liabilities related to potential development impacts and other third-party encroachment issues that may arise.

Tan Hoang, AICP, is a land use planner at SAIC and supports SAIC’s Liability and Asset Management (LAM) program. Hoang has more than five years of experience in environmental and land use planning, and has helped develop various types of web-based land use risk management systems for commercial and government sector clients.
Tom Burns, P.G., is a principal geologist at SAIC and serves as the program manager for SAIC’s LAM program. Burns has more than 16 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, with 10 years of experience designing and managing various types of web-based land use risk management systems for commercial and government sector clients.

For more information on the topic of LAM, visit

Find articles with similar topics
, , ,