Environmental Justice Element Now Required for California’s General Plans

As of January 1, 2018, California’s cities, counties, and charter cities are required to either adopt an Environmental Justice Element in their General Plan or integrate Environmental Justice policies and goals into the elements of their General Plan “upon the adoption or next revision of two or more elements concurrently.” Gov. Code Sec. 65302(h)(2).

The new Environmental Justice element differs from other General Plan elements because it applies to jurisdictions with “disadvantaged communities” (defined below) and requires those jurisdictions to “[i]dentify objectives and policies to reduce the unique or compounded health risks in disadvantaged communities by means that include, but are not limited to, the reduction of pollution exposure, including the improvement of air quality, and the promotion of public facilities, food access, safe and sanitary homes, and physical activity.” The element also requires jurisdictions to develop policies that promote participation in public decision-making and to prioritize programs that address the needs of disadvantaged communities. Gov. Code Sec. 65302(h)(1)(A), (B), (C).

Many of the Environmental Justice element’s requirements include topics that are already found in other General Plan elements. For example, the Office of Planning and Research 2017 General Plan Guidelines state that promoting transit-oriented development, locating residential zones away from industrial sites and pollution emitters, and promoting bike and pedestrian connectivity in disadvantaged communities are all policies that satisfy various statutory requirements.

The statute defines a “disadvantaged community” as (1) an area designated by the California Environmental Protection Agency under Health & Safety Code Sec. 39711 (mapped here) or (2) a low-income area “that is disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative health effects, exposure, or environmental degradation.” Gov. Code 65302(h)(4)(A). A “low-income area” has “household incomes at or below 80 percent of the statewide median income . . . ” or is an area designated by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Gov. Code 65302(h)(4)(C); Health & Safety Code 50093.

California currently has two municipalities that have adopted Environmental Justice Elements: Jurupa Valley and National City. Even though both elements predate the Environmental Justice element statute, and therefore do not clearly meet all its requirements, the Office of Planning and Research General Plan Guidelines cite the policies in both elements extensively and hold them up as models.