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Thread: Form based codes for small, oceanfront town

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Form based codes for small, oceanfront town

    I'm living in a town of less that 9,000 people by the ocean. It's a great town, but it's become obvious that the Planning Board is not even trying to follow its Euclidean Zoning Map--which is admittedly too simple and restrictive, anyway. The old map is somewhat out of date, and efforts to update it have been followed by developers wanting (and getting) to completely ignore what isn't really a realistic map to begin with.

    I've been reading, recently, about Form Based Codes, which are, among other things, much shorter and easier for the non-professional to understand. The problem is that every paper on Form Based Zoning warns that it can be difficult to implement and administer. Worse, it seems targeted only at urban areas, leaving me wondering if it's really a viable option for my town. I really like the idea of incorporating FBC's into the town's long term plan, but I'm not sure if this is too much for a small town.

    Our town has few residents, but has a enough commercial development and big box stores for a city of 40,000 people.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Max,

    The City of Covington, Georgia recently made the overall change from Euclidian to Formed Based and the transition was painful for some but overall it went smoothly. The City rezoned most, if not all, of the property within its jurisdictional boundaries. During their rewrite they had assistance from a couple small consulting firms, Market & Main and Urban Collage, not to mention some of the best zoning and land use attorneys in Georgia. You may want to look at their codes and speak with their planner about the transition, it sounds like you could create a masterpiece.

  3. #3
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    There seems to be increasing recognition among advocates of form-based codes that they need major tweaking so they can be applicable in rural and exurban areas.

    Have a look at the SmartCode (http://www.smartcodecentral.com), an open-source (free as in beer) model form-based code that is probably among the most popular. The SmartCode incorporates different transects of development, ranging from T-1 (rural) to T-6 (urban downtown). It can be calibrated to meet a community's needs; it's not a one-size fits all code. In most communities, the SmartCode supplements, but doesn't replace existing zoning codes; it can be applied in an "old town" area and be optional for new development.

    Although the SmartCode does regulate use, it places more of an emphasis on the form of the built environment. The individual transect zones tend to be more flexible than the zones found in a traditional Euclidian zoning code.

    We just adopted the SmartCode in the small (but growing) Texas city where I work. I'll emphasize "small Texas city". If it can be embraced here, it can be implemented anywhere.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  4. #4
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    You might take a look at the Grass Valley, California Development Code. It's a small town of about 15,000, and their code has gotten a fair amount of critical aclaim.

    I know, I know... it's in California, BUT it is an area outside of Sacramento that has a bit of a conservative reputation. I haven't read it in-depth, but it looks like it is incredibly easy to administer compared to some I've seen.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks. That looks like a great start. Of course, this town varies from multi-million rentals on the ocean to big box stores near busy freeways to machine shops and warehouses inland. It also has lots of new conservation parks and areas that just not reachable due to marsh and other issues.

    The biggest challenge here, though, is the residents' resistance to change.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    It looks like the SmartCode process works pretty well. I'm going to propose that we use the T1-T4 zones (since they apply best to our town), and that we put a warrant article on that.

    I think it interesting that trees and vegetation have been effective at fixing a lot of zoning mistakes. If you don't believe me, drive through some urban areas. When the leaves come down, you find yourself driving through the ghetto.

  7. #7
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by maxxoccupancy View post
    Thanks. That looks like a great start. Of course, this town varies from multi-million rentals on the ocean to big box stores near busy freeways to machine shops and warehouses inland. It also has lots of new conservation parks and areas that just not reachable due to marsh and other issues.

    The biggest challenge here, though, is the residents' resistance to change.
    Grass Valley does not use form-based across the board--parts of the city are conventional (pre-existing freeway commercial areas, industrial,etc.) In fact, I think nearly every city I've seen implement form-based has kept at least some areas as conventional.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Is it just too difficult for small towns to pull this off? FBC, on the surface, strikes me as nearly the ideal, giving townsfolk the ability to specify what neighborhoods will look like using charts and diagrams. You still get maps, and it's easier than other systems for a Selectman to tell a developer "Yes/No, you can('t) operate that type of business there." The answer, much more often, is yes, favoring better utilization of finite land.

    I'm just not sure why more small towns aren't abandoning the restrictive use codes. I would assume that it would take much less time and money for a small town. I would also assume that folks would prefer FBC's for residential areas in order to benefit directly from increased property values and fewer restrictions on the use of their own homes. It's a mystery to me.

  9. #9
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by maxxoccupancy View post
    Is it just too difficult for small towns to pull this off? FBC, on the surface, strikes me as nearly the ideal, giving townsfolk the ability to specify what neighborhoods will look like using charts and diagrams. You still get maps, and it's easier than other systems for a Selectman to tell a developer "Yes/No, you can('t) operate that type of business there." The answer, much more often, is yes, favoring better utilization of finite land.

    I'm just not sure why more small towns aren't abandoning the restrictive use codes. I would assume that it would take much less time and money for a small town. I would also assume that folks would prefer FBC's for residential areas in order to benefit directly from increased property values and fewer restrictions on the use of their own homes. It's a mystery to me.

    I think FBC's are perfect for small towns and rural areas. The only reason you haven't seen it is because it is still pretty new, and small towns and rural areas frequently lack access to knowledgable folks to develop the codes, can't afford the knowledgable people, or lack the political will or interest in changing from the status quo.

    FBC's, because of their simpler approach and heavy use of graphics, always seemed like a natural thing for small areas with few resources or staff.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Ahah. It sort of sounds like you mean, "A book with lots of pictures, so you small town folk can understand..." j/k

    I don't know the square mileage of Seabrook off the top of my head, but I know that the population ranges from under 7,000 to about 9,000 (during the summer), and that almost every neighborhood is completely different. You get the whole range, here, from mobile home retiree parks to office buildings, from beach front property to conservation, from out in the woods country living to unintended mixed use.

    I'm just not sure how much time and money it would take the town to migrate to FBC's. Worse that FBC's seem to be too urban oriented, and the drawings that folks have seen are targeted at more intense areas.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    I've been reading SmartCode, and I have to admit that I'm not too happy with what I'm reading. It seems to present a lot of legalistic and unusual terms that would present an obstacle to the lay builder. Obviously, the goal is to get more of the positive type of development, and many builders have been walking away from anything too unusual or difficult. There are plenty of very good builders and small developers out there who can produce good structures who are not experts at zoning codes.

    This is the main reason that the Form Based Codes Institute recommends the inclusion of diagrams, maps, and drawings is that it's easier to interpret and enforce codes. It's also easier for developers to build according to those diagrams.

    My other concern with SmartCode is that it seems to implement Smart Growth (packing people into tightly confined areas to encourage increased transit use, which is having disastrous effects in numerous states and cities), rather than simply mixed development in areas where that would be preferable in the marketplace.

    I guess that my ideal system would be one that simply maps traffic flow through the street a parcel is on, and assigns an acceptable form based on the intensity of measured traffic flow--pedestrians and cars. Every so often, you have someone go out and measure the traffic flow on each street, and you assign each parcel a classification based on that number. Since that type of system would closely match what private developers do when considering some development,

  12. #12
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    The language in the SmartCode has a bit more legalese/plannerese compared to the codes I draft (I'm a firm believer in using plain English for land use codes, but I think I'm the only one who believes that), but it's much better than the thick, often indecipherable legal English seen in most zoning codes. The SmartCode is intended to be used to supplement existing zoning, rather than replace it, and many terms it uses are unique (for example, "warrant") are intended to reinforce that point.

    The SmartCode is intended to be calibrated for each community. It doesn't mandate "packing in people like sardines"; for example, a SmartCode in one community might require a large percentage of T-1 and T-2 area, while another may only require a smaller percentage. It's not a "one-size fits all" code, but rather "fill in the blanks" for your community.

    I guess that my ideal system would be one that simply maps traffic flow through the street a parcel is on, and assigns an acceptable form based on the intensity of measured traffic flow--pedestrians and cars.
    The problem with such a system, IMHO, is that it forces a land use pattern around existing transportation networks. Good planning practice is to design transportation networks for the land use pattern you want, not the other way around.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Hmmmmm...

    If only small town planners were smart enough (or willing enough to do the computer modeling/projections) to be smarter than the random flow of traffic.

    On the upside, Seabrook's current zoning is written in layman's terms, and looks to be modifiable. On the downside, some of the zoning comes from warrant articles that are not likely to be repealed by the voters. The town is pretty well locked in to minimum parking requirements, one use lots, one building per lot, minimum acreage and frontage requirements, minimum (but not fixed) setbacks, and several other rules that make a dense, mixed use, walkable downtown almost impossible.

    Still, it would be nice to make the code more flexible and form-oriented.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Form Based Codes for small, oceanfront town

    Now how do I sell this idea to the Planning Board? What are the advantages that the general public will recognize? I've seen the presentations and what not, but folks around here are very resistant to change, and it's difficult to explain the improvements in property values and property rights, and some of the older folks are liable to say, "If it don't broke don' fitsit!"

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by maxxoccupancy View post
    Now how do I sell this idea to the Planning Board? What are the advantages that the general public will recognize? I've seen the presentations and what not, but folks around here are very resistant to change, and it's difficult to explain the improvements in property values and property rights, and some of the older folks are liable to say, "If it don't broke don' fitsit!"
    Don't take this the wrong way...but how long have you been there? There is a tendency for planners to come running into town ready to make changes, sometimes drastic, immediately. Most existing codes have a long, complex, but followable and logical (usually) history. Understanding that history, where it came from, the people who made it so and why is extremely helpful if you're trying to make changes in a small town.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    I'm actually a newb, and there has been resistance to new people proposing changes. This is one of democracy's shortcomings, in my mind. I've been all over the world, and have seen different ways of doing things in other cities and countries. Realistically, new people should be responsible for proposing things, while locals should be responsible for considering these proposals on their merits.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Okay, this small, oceanfront town is now considering form based codes. However, the problems being considered are a bit unusual:

    * Many residents do not believe that the town can ever have pedestrian friendly areas--that autos will dominate for ever. This is despite the fact that the town used to be pedestrian friendly almost everywhere, and that the current zoning laws have actually created the urban sprawl and parking issues that we have.

    * Because so much of the town lies on marsh and beach, soil erosion, water runoff, conservation of wooded areas, environmental impacts are a major economic issue and concern. There's not much in our code for handling conservation issues--only build or no build.

    * Most folks around here are so familiar with the old use codes that anything new would face resistance. I've been checking in with SmartCode 9.2, and the learning curve for that approach is quite steep.

    * DDR just won a court case allowing them to build a 450,000 sqft shopping complex along Route 1, which is expected to add 2,000 cars per hour during peak periods to an already packed route. Now folks are noticing that there is nothing in our existing zoning code that would stop even more development like this from going forward. Because of the marsh on one side and the Interstate on the other, it would be very difficult to build an effective business bypass.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Update: We held another Planning Board meeting tonight, and the issue of form based codes was raised again. The problem is that the chair is under the impression that it would take several years for our small town to get where it needs to be. She is utterly convinced that other towns are taking 4-6 years because that's what a few folks up here have told her.

    I emphatically stated that the density/intensity zones are easier than adding landscaping, architectural, and signage standards--which we don't have any of in town, anyway. To add insult to injury, the town already has rural, conservation, residential, industrial, and commercial zones, and each of these could remap precisely to intensity zones, simplifying the job even further.

    I understand that the public charette process is lengthy, and that some attention has to be given to architectural, landscaping, traffic flow, etc., but they are making FBC's out to be years of fighting/arguing in order to get to where we need to be.

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