Zoning Practice — March 2011

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Douglas Hammel, AICP, author of the March 2011 Zoning Practice article "Creating Design Guidelines That Work: Empowering the Local Planner."

Question from Dane Matthews, AICP:

What do you think about form-based codes? Our city just adopted one for a small area near downtown and will soon amend the ordinances to create the basis for rezoning all or part of the land to be covered.

Answer from author Douglas Hammel, AICP:

Generally, I think form-based codes offer great utility when used properly, but their impacts must be carefully considered to balance factors of community character, economic development, mode of access, demographics, etc. The important question to consider is to what extent you want to use regulation to control the final development outcome. In reality, even the most traditional zoning ordinances include elements of form — maximum building heights, minimum setbacks, required screening and buffers, etc. The debate tends to become louder when thinking about how far to take the regulation of form to apply to specific design elements or architectural character.

Many communities take the approach you have — apply form-based regulations to a specific area where everyone can see the value of preserving an existing form. Perhaps it's a historic downtown or neighborhood where greater regulatory leniency could compromise the local identity. Other parts of the city may be governed by more traditional regulations. This is likely not because people don't care what they look like. Instead, flexibilities may be needed to accommodate evolving market demands, population shifts, or other factors. The danger of form-based codes is that they may limit the potential for investment as development trends evolve further and further away from what the regulations require. Each community should ask itself where the most critical character areas are, and where a strong market can be sustained within a tighter regulatory framework. These are the places where a form-based approach is most likely to be successful. In other parts of the city, you may be doing more harm than good.

Question from John P. Spoden, AICP, Libertyville, Illinois:

I serve as the Director of Community Development for the Village of Libertyville, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. The village was established in the 1800s and is recognized for its historic downtown, excellent schools, and mix of housing types.

Our struggle is the design of single family homes that replace teardowns in the historic areas of the village. Are you aware of any single family home design guidelines for a historic community that we may review?  

Answer from author Douglas Hammel, AICP:

There are several models of single-family design guidelines for historic neighborhoods. Just as it is the case with other types of districts, you can address residential design control through regulatory zoning requirements or non-regulatory design guidelines.

For example, Riverside, Illinois, includes regulations in its zoning ordinance to address the "big picture" issues of residential setback, bulk, and building volume in order to maintain the overall character of Olmsted's neighborhood design. But they don't specifically address architectural style or detail. On the other hand, Wheaton, Illinois, uses residential design guidelines for its Northside Historic District (www.wheaton.il.us/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=1500).

These guidelines address specific design features — such as prominent massing elements, materials, and details — that reflect a specific neighborhood style and aesthetic.