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General Recommendations 

Incorporating Healthy Foods and Healthy Soils into General Planning Documents

General planning updates provide an excellent opportunity to provide the visioning and framework for healthy foods, healthy soils, which contributes to the resilience and sustainability of the community. New guidance from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) suggests that municipalities should perform a survey of infrastructure needed to recover edible food and deliver such food to food banks and charities to help inform the land use element in planning documents.

The OPR states that the land use element should also consider the need for new organic processing facilities (composting, anaerobic digestion), potential to upgrade existing facilities or sites, the infrastructure needed to accommodate increased organics diversion, as well as new curbside collection requirements. Of equal importance is that the land use element “also include a transparent and proactive process to involve potentially impacted or disadvantaged communities in the early stages of facility planning and permitting processes.” 

Also recommended is general plans consider the impacts of new facilities on surrounding land uses and access routes identified in the circulation element. Although not specified, the OPR is referring to large, centralized processing programs that could pose adverse impacts to sensitive receptors if not carefully planned. Transportation impacts of the additional hauling requirements, for example, should be analyzed, as well as vehicle miles travelled when considering organics diversion as part of a community’s sustainability plan.

In addition to OPR recommendations, general planning should consider both centralized and decentralized collection and processing programs and the associated benefits and impacts of both as not just a solid waste management activity, but as a means to strengthen community, improve food security, and create meaningful employment through healthy soil production. Planning goals overlap with other general planning elements or topics including healthy communities, equitable and resilient communities, climate change, conservation and environment, housing, as well as economic development.

While general planning for composting and healthy soils is a good first step, it often speaks in broad terms of ideals and overly ambitious goals that might not actually be implemented or achieved. As such, strategic plans, policy initiatives and ordinances must also be developed to ensure programs will actually be implemented. 

Municipal Codes


Land Use and Zoning:

Include “compost” or “composting” and “vermiculture” in definition of agriculture and agriculture-related definitions to capture primary and accessory uses:

Sample Amendments (suggested amendments are underlined):

“Agriculture” means the use of the land for agricultural purposes, including farming, composting, dairying, pasturage, agriculture, vermiculture, horticulture, floriculture, viticulture, apiaries, animal husbandry (excluding swine); incidental to other agricultural uses; and the necessary accessory uses for storing produce; provided, however, that the operation of any such accessory use shall be secondary to that of normal uses and shall not include stockyards or the commercial feeding of garbage or offal to animals. (adapted from City of Chula Vista)

Agriculture: Shall mean the production of goods such as food, fibers, compost or feed by the systematic growing harvesting of plants, animals and other life forms. Typical forms of agriculture include cultivation of land and raising of livestock. (adapted from County of San Diego) Commercial Agriculture: Shall mean a routine and ongoing enterprise associated with a farm, grove, dairy, or other agricultural business, and shall include:

  1. The cultivation and tillage of soil; composting; crop rotation; fallowing for agricultural purposes; the production, cultivation, growing, replanting and harvesting of any agricultural commodity including viticulture, vermiculture, apiculture, or horticulture…(adapted from County of San Diego Zoning Ordinance)

Adapt key definitions from the toolkit's Glossary or as defined below:

- Agricultural, Food,  and Green Material as defined in the California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 17852.

- Compost, Composting, and Compostable Material  as defined in the California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 17852.

- Composting Facility:  A facility devoted to receiving, handling, storing and processing, through composting, compostable materials such as yard and landscape trimmings, manure, and food scraps. Receiving, handling, storing and processing, through composting includes controlled biological decomposition, screening, and storage activities related to production of compost, compost feedstocks, and chipped and ground materials.

- Chip and Grind Facility: A facility that does not produce compost, but rather is devoted to receiving, handling, storing and processing, through chipping and grinding, brushy, woody materials such as yard and landscape trimmings, and untreated, unpainted dimensional lumber.

Solid Waste:

Exclude source separated compostable materials from definitions of solid waste and garbage. 

Solid Waste and/or Garbage... does not include source-separated materials or substances having commercial value or other importance which can be salvaged for reuse, recycling, value-added processing, composting or resale. (adapted from City of Chula Vista)

Detailed Land Use Recommendations

To the extent practicable, maintain consistency with CalRecycle facility tiers and composting related definitions. In general, activities exempt from a CalRecycle  composting facility permit should be exempt from a land use permit, but should not be exempt from meeting performance measures.  

Exempt Activities:

The purpose of the exemptions is to allow low-risk and small composting activities in rural and urban areas, and to avoid duplication of permits where composting is an accessory use. Exemptions should require best management practices to ensure composting is managed in such a manner that prevents vectors, odors and leachate.

In areas where visual character is prioritized, such as residential zones, the jurisdiction should adopt specific screening or other visual requirements.

The following composting activities should be considered for exemption from the zoning ordinance in all zones and would be appropriate for community gardens, urban farms, institutions, commercial centers, etc.

Sample Permit Exemption:

The following composting activities are exempt [from a land use/zoning permit]:

  • As defined per CCR Title 14, Section 17855 and Section 17896.6:
    • Agricultural composting and digestion,
    • Vermicomposting,
    • Chip and grind, composting and digestion that does not exceed 100 cubic yards onsite (and 750 square feet for composting if not in-vessel).  

All exempt activities shall adhere to the following*:

  • All material shall be appropriately managed so as to not emit foul odors, leachate, attract vectors or cause other nuisances per nuisance regulations. Good housekeeping measures shall be performed to keep the composting area neat and clean including sweeping and disposing of litter.
  • Composting (other than residential backyard composting) that is larger than three (3) cubic yards and: 

Accepts compostable materials from offsite, distributes compost products offsite, or both,

- Shall perform best management practices including the following: 

Composting shall be operated in accordance with a written operations plan

The activity shall be managed by an experienced operator that completed a course or training in composting

Regular monitoring and maintenance shall be performed and recorded including temperatures, moisture levels, turning, odors and tracking materials coming into and off the site

Immediately incorporate received food scraps into the active compost pile and cover with bulking agent or finished compost

Ensure the active pile has an appropriate recipe mix (about three parts bulking agent to part food scraps by volume)

- Maintain an adequate supply of bulking agent onsite

- Remove and properly dispose of contaminants such as, plastic, glass from compost feedstocks and recycle or dispose

  • Optional:  Composting areas shall be screened from front and side facing neighbors and streets through approved landscaping or fences.

*Rather than list performance measures, jurisdictions can shorten the code by simply requiring that best management practices be performed. A separate document listing typical performance measures can be made readily available on the jurisdiction’s website.  Such practices include these referenced by the ILSR.

Permitted Facilities:

Develop a tiered permit structure that provides local guidance for development standards, and assurance the operation receives all other agency and landowner approvals necessary to ensure the project operates in a manner that protects public health and safety.

Development of Tier 1 and Tier 2 Administrative (or Ministerial) Permits enable the jurisdiction to perform architectural and aesthetics review to ensure the facility is designed and operated to be a good neighbor and is sensitive to its surroundings. Jurisdictions should reference development standards into administrative permit requirements for aesthetics/ architectural requirements including use of screens (fences or landscaping) and signage, traffic management and parking. All other building and construction related permits would be required, as well as permits from other regulatory agencies.

Sample Permit Language:

Composting Facilities:

- Tier 1 Compost Facilities are those that have no more than 12,500 cubic yards onsite or require an EA Notification or Registration permit from CalRecycle per CCR Title 14. These include agricultural and green material composting operations, composting operations processing vegetative food scraps, and small to medium in-vessel facilities.

- Tier 2 Compost Facilities are those that have more than 12,500 cubic yards onsite, process more volatile food scraps such as meat and fish, and/or require a Full Permit from CalRecycle and CEQA review per CCR Title 14.  

- Composting Facilities are allowed with an Administrative Permit in agricultural zones; rural commercial zones; urban fringe heavy commercial zones; special use, open space and quasi-public/ public utility use zones where agricultural uses are permitted; and most industrial zones.

Chip and Grind Facilities: 

- Tier 1 Chip and Grind Facilities are those that receive up to 500 tons per day or require an EA Notification or Registration permit from CalRecycle per CCR Title 14. 

- Tier 2 Chip and Grind Facilities are those that receive more than 500 tons per day, or require a Full Permit from CalRecycle per CCR Title 14.

Chip and Grind Facilities are allowed to operate in agricultural zones, open space, and quasi-public/ public utility use zones that allow agricultural activities, without a permit. Chip and Grind Facilities are allowed to operate in rural heavy commercial and industrial zones, and urban fringe heavy commercial and industrial zones with an Administrative Permit.

 Tier 1 and Tier 2 Facility Requirements:

i. Applicant shall provide an adequate project description, including:

  • Site location
  • Acreage
  • Address
  • Character and volume of feedstocks proposed to accept
  • Processing technology utilized
  • End use of compost products and soil amendments
  • Equipment
  • Days and hours of operation
  • Whether or not the facility will be open to the public
  • Traffic estimates to and from the facility and traffic management plan
  • List of best management practices to ensure site security, prevent illegal dumping and control odors, vectors, dust, run-off, leachate and any other impact or nuisance to local water sources, neighbors and sensitive receptors in the vicinity of the composting activity

ii. Applicant shall provide the project description to the Fire Department and CalRecycle Local Enforcement Agency (LEA).

iii. Applicant shall certify in writing that the operation will comply with all applicable state, regional and local regulations and obtain required permits, including local building and construction-related permits.

iv. Applicant shall provide written landowner approval of the project description and business plan.

v. Applicant shall certify in writing, under penalty of perjury, the project will be conducted as outlined in project description.

vi. Applicant shall certify in writing at least one staff member or consultant has commercial-scale composting or chip-and-grind experience.

Sample Administrative Permit*

An Administrative Permit is required and may be approved in accordance with the Administrative Permit Procedure if it is found:

i. That the location, size, design, and operating characteristics of the proposed use will be compatible with adjacent uses, residents, buildings, or structures, with consideration given to:

(a) Harmony in scale, bulk, coverage and density.

(b) The availability of public facilities, services and utilities.

(c) The harmful effect, if any, upon desirable neighborhood character.

(d) The generation of traffic and the capacity and physical character of surrounding streets.

(e) The suitability of the site for the type and intensity of use or development which is proposed.

(f) Any other relevant impact of the proposed use.

ii. That the impacts, as described in paragraph "i" of this section, and the location of the proposed use will be consistent with the General Plan.

iii. That the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act have been complied with.

Recommendations are in agreement with and adapted from those provided by the Institute for Local Government (ILG) in its report, Model Goals, Policies, Zoning and Development Standards for Composting and Remanufacturing Facilities. This toolkit recommends a issuance of an Administrative Permit for architectural and character review and to ensure the facility will be a good neighbor, rather than minor and conditional use permits, as CalRecycle already defines the facility types and operations requirements including best management practices. The ILG report also recommends that in-vessel composting (aerobic or anaerobic) be permitted by right in rural and rural fringe agricultural, and urban and urban fringe heavy commercial/ industrial zones. While in agreement that in-vessel facilities should be exempt from use permits, in-vessel composting is included in administrative tiers for the aforementioned purposes as well as to ensure end-use of digestate will be suitable for local soils. 

*Adapted from the County of San Diego’s Administrative Permit

Additional Opportunities for Healthy Food, Healthy Soils in Planning Documents

Food Systems, Food Justice, Food Security

Opportunities for local food production, food security, soil health and healthy communities should be united and strengthened through discussions of food systems and connections with general planning elements including land use, transportation, public services, housing, environmental, and other relevant subject areas.

- The Food Recovery Hierarchy should be promoted to prioritize the highest and best use of organics and wasted food. Innovative methods to reduce wasted food and manage food scraps and other organics should be demonstrated while promoting policies and incentives that support a local processing economy that returns valuable nutrients back to local soils for purposes of food production and healthy food access.


Promote backyard composting programs at residences (single and multi-family) as part of overall sustainability initiatives that include water conservation and energy efficiency.

Solid Waste, Recycling, Conservation and Environmental Justice

- Recognize the greenhouse gas reduction (GHG) benefits associated with landfill diversion of organics and application of compost in meeting CAP goals and adaptation strategies; as well as local processing of organics impacts on traffic and transportation systems (minimizing vehicle miles traveled).

- Closed landfill sites, heavy commercial and industrial sites, rural and agricultural lands provide opportunity for centralized composting and energy production alternatives. Where appropriate, explore energy production opportunities that produce stable and safe byproducts that can be returned to local agricultural and landscaping soils. Promote equity and ensure environmental justice through appropriate siting of various sized facilities throughout the community.

- Synchronize local policies with state mandates and initiatives to divert organics from landfills while promoting healthy soils.

- Promote a wide range of composting options that are appropriate for the generators served, including centralized collection for large commercial generators. Promote decentralized composting opportunities that retain local resources for direct community benefit, provide opportunities for community participation and education, while reducing the burden on large scale hauling and processing infrastructure demands. Promote enhanced backyard composting programs and facilitate community agriculture at local gardens, vacant lots and schools. Consider the financial impacts that requiring a third or even fourth collection bin for source-separated organics in centralized curbside and commercial programs may have on low income or disadvantaged communities. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, consider a range of diversion options that a community can support.  

- Promote provisions with franchise haulers and landscapers that organics will be transformed into high-quality compost and mulch that will be returned back to the community for healthy soil production.

Economic Drivers Recirculating Local Resources and Local Dollars

Local composting facilities and use of compost provides jobs and recirculates dollars in the local economy. Per research done by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, composting sustains four to eight times the number of jobs than do landfills. Develop incentives to attract organics processors and manufacturers, which will provide well-paying jobs and create value-added products that support the local economy and stability of the community.   

Promote and support locally produced compost markets through specification of compost and mulch in water conservation practices, in public spaces, parks and recreation areas, restoration projects, stormwater quality and erosion control practices, as well as sustainable landscaping and streetscaping.