The City of Ontario is on the verge of adopting a general plan unlike any in California. Its goal of transforming Ontario into a bustling urban place of 350,000 residents with the state's most elaborate transit hub is not what sets the plan apart. Instead, it is how the plan is being developed on the Internet and in conjunction with other city plans and policies.
The general plan is only a part of a more extensive "Ontario plan," and that broader map functions as an interactive website. In other words, the Ontario plan is not something simply loaded onto a website for future reference. Rather, it evolves over time based on day-to-day activities and the city's changing priorities.
City Manager Greg Devereaux said Ontario did not want to invest heavily in a general plan update only to wind up with a document that sits on a shelf. "We wanted it to be a business strategy and to institute an approach to governance that has developed over the last 10 years among the council and the staff," he said.
The Ontario plan, whose development is overseen by Devereaux's office, is intended to serve as a daily tool for use by city employees, residents and anyone doing business with the city. The plan provides comprehensive, easily accessible information on the city's operations – public works, emergency services, finance, land use planning, and more – as well as on such important community issues as health care and education. The idea is to develop the general plan in the context of all these dynamics, and vice-versa.
Ontario officials want the general plan to be part of a feedback loop that includes city staff and the public, explained Kati Rubinyi of The Planning Center, the city's consulting firm. "The best way to leverage the general plan's context was to put it on the web," said Rubinyi, who serves as the site's architect. "It would afford us easy use and flexibility."
When setting out to update its 1992 general plan more than four years ago, Ontario employed a fairly standard "visioning" process. That process was well along when the city hired The Planning Center in 2006 and the idea of a more democratic, web-based approach emerged. Since then, the consulting firm and the city have built and continually refined the website. Ontario Planning Director Jerry Blum said he sees the web approach as an effective way to get information into planners' hands more quickly. The first thing they do in the morning is log on to the site and instantly gain access not only to general plan policies but also to City Council priorities and information that is constantly updated by city workers in building, planning, public works, finance and other departments.
"You can be sitting at your desk and have a wealth of information at your fingertips," Blum said. In addition, land and business owners, development applicants and the general public may jump onto the website and dig as deeply as they want for information about parcels of land, development projects, infrastructure and city programs.
"You are able to vertically and horizontally layer information with the website," said Brian Judd, vice president of community planning and design for The Planning Center. "That's the biggest change from a paper document, where you create a separate website for community news, and a separate website for the policy plan, etc."
Judd noted that people participating in development review meetings will no longer need stacks of documents spread across a table. Instead, everyone can simply follow along on the website.
Judd, Blum and others presented a draft Ontario plan in the spring to the American Planning Association, California Chapter's California Planning Roundtable, which is working on "reinventing the general plan." Roundtable member and Fullerton Planning Manager Al Zelinka said roundtable members were a bit skeptical at first, but were mostly convinced in the end.
"By and large, the roundtable found the presentation to be intriguing and innovative. I'm not saying that, wholesale, this is the way to go, but there are a lot of lessons in this for other cities," Zelinka said of the Ontario plan. "Using the general plan as an overall governance tool is an idea the roundtable found to be intriguing. And having it owned by the city administration, rather than owned by the community development department, is interesting."
Zelinka said roundtable members had concerns about staffing levels to maintain such a comprehensive plan, and they questioned when plan changes might qualify as "projects" requiring review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Ontario city officials say maintaining the plan is easy because so many aspects of it are part of daily operations. Moreover, the plan can evolve as needed. "You will never have to have the kind of [general plan] update that people go through in this state," Devereaux said.
Judd said that for CEQA purposes, a general plan amendment would remain a "project" but revisions of portions of the Ontario plan that are only linked on the website to the general plan would not trigger CEQA review. The distinction should be easy to detect, he said.
Once the plan is adopted, the city and The Planning Center intend to immediately move forward with a monitoring and tracking program that includes performance measures, according to Judd. Ontario has scheduled final workshops and hearings on the general plan update this month, with adoption possible by the end of the month.
In 2007, the City Council adopted an "Ontario Vision," with four fundamentals that reflect strong pro-growth sentiment. In light of that vision, The Ontario plan outlines a new Ontario Airport Metro Center north of the Ontario Airport that would be a site for a huge multi-modal facility featuring high-speed rail, magnetic levitation trains, bus rapid transit, airport shuttles, local transit and more. The metro center would be a major regional job center.
The plan also reconsiders past planning for Ontario's 8,000-acre portion of the former San Bernardino County dairy preserve, from which nearly every dairy has since relocated (see CP&DR Local Watch, June 2002, March 2000). The draft general plan calls for more housing units – up to 60,000 – and more of a mixed-use approach in the old preserve, now known as the "New Model Colony."
Greg Devereaux and Jerry Blum, City of Ontario, (909) 395-2010.
Brian Judd and Kati Rubinyi, The Planning Center, (714) 966-9220.
Al Zelinka, California Planning Roundtable, (714) 738-3347.
Ontario Plan: www.ontarioplan.org.
A spate of climate-related legislation – especially last year's SB 375 – has focused attention on how long-range land use planning has consequences for the emission of greenhouse gases. Partly for this reason, the California Planning Roundtable (CPR) has undertaken a project it calls "Reinventing the General Plan."
The project aims to develop a website-based incubator of good general plan ideas, explained Elaine Costello, who recently retired as Mountain View community development director and who is managing the CPR project.
"Our theory is that progressive ideas and things that are innovative are parts of plans, but they are not the whole plan," Costello said. "We want to dig in and point out to people what is the best in these general plans."
To that end, the roundtable is spotlighting aspects of new general plans by the cities of Ontario, San Diego, Sacramento and Truckee, and by Marin County. For example, the organization spotlights a map in the Sacramento general plan clearly showing which parts of the city the new plan leaves unchanged and which parts could change, she said. What is impressive about the Ontario plan is that it is truly an interdepartmental effort, and that its web-based approach allows for an immediate focus on implementation by making the plan a daily tool, Costello said.
"It really is a city document," she said. "It really is a general plan for the entire community that will be used for budgeting and infrastructure decisions."
Implementation of an adopted general plan's objectives and policies often gets lost amid the daily grind, Costello observed, and required annual reports on implementation can lead to last-minute scrambles to figure out what has happened. With the Ontario approach, "from the minute you start, you're looking at implementation."
Writing a general plan should be less of a bureaucratic exercise and more about creating practical tools for planning and managing the city or county, she added. "People are spending a fortune on general plans, and they are not getting the value that they should. They are not getting the documents that they can use and revise easily."
The California Planning Roundtable intends to roll out the new incubator website in time for the American Planning Association, California Chapter's annual conference in September.
California Planning Roundtable: www.cproundtable.org.