As municipalities in Connecticut reconsider and update their local zoning ordinances, some of them are taking a fresh look at the whole concept of community land use planning. Town by town, the resulting reforms could have a big effect on the mix of building designs and construction methods in many evolving downtown and suburban locations.

The Connecticut Mirror covered the story in a February 10 article (see: "Connecticut slowly embraces a new approach to zoning," by Tom Condon).

Hamden, Connecticut, the Mirror reported, "has joined a quiet revolution going on across the country in an area not usually associated with revolutionary fervor: zoning. Instead of focusing on what a building is used for, as traditional zoning does, the new approach, called 'form-based zoning,' concentrates on what a building looks like — its form — and how it relates to the street and the neighborhood. Advocates say the focus on the physical form of buildings encourages diverse, attractive and walkable streets, protects the character of neighborhoods and encourages development by making it more predictable and less administratively cumbersome."

The Form-Based Codes Institute (FBI) clarifies the concept with a definition (see: "Form-Based Codes Defined"). "Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks," the site explains. "The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals. They are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, character) of development, rather than only distinctions in land-use types. This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters (e.g., FAR, dwellings per acre, setbacks, parking ratios, traffic LOS), to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are regulatory, not advisory. They are drafted to implement a community plan. They try to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. Ultimately, a form-based code is a tool; the quality of development outcomes depends on the quality and objectives of the community plan that a code implements."

"Put simply, a form-based code (FBC) is a way to regulate development that controls building form first and building use second, with the purpose of achieving a particular type of “place” or built environment based on a community vision," write Mary Madden and Joel Russell of the FBCI on the Planner's Web website (see: "What is a Form-Based Code?") "Some may ask, 'isn't that what zoning does?'" they note. "But towns, cities, and counties across the country are increasingly finding that conventional zoning is not fulfilling this essential goal. Not only does most zoning fail to implement plans for the future, many towns and cities are also realizing that their current zoning ordinances would not even allow them to rebuild their historic centers and neighborhoods. At the same time, more and more people are concerned about sprawl and its impact on our health, our pocketbooks, our time, and our environment -- despite the fact that most of the sprawling development in the U.S. today is built exactly according to our development regulations."

“Zoning doesn’t age well,” former Hamden town planner Leslie Creane, who championed that community's form-based code, told the Mirror. The paper reported: "The Hamden code, which covers the whole town but focuses on the three commercial corridors, illustrates how planners hope form-base zoning will change the look and feel along those thoroughfares:

  • Buildings must be at or near the street line. This pushes parking to the rear and creates a better pedestrian environment.
  • Buildings must be two to five stories high. Most older codes don’t set minimum building heights. But, said Creane, a building of two or more stories is more likely to be mixed use, and thus not to be completely empty should one of the uses go out of business. Some newer multi-story buildings can be easily converted from commercial to office or even residential, depending on demand. Big boxes, not so easily.
  • Buildings must have windows and doors facing the street, to prevent the scary blank-wall effect and enhance the feeling of safety.
  • Parking requirements have been reduced. Traditional zoning required parking that met the perceived demand on Black Friday or the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest shopping days of the year. That leaves a lot of wasted space most of the year, to the detriment of the view and the environment."

And Creane told the paper that Hamden stood to benefit from the higher use density that the new zoning concept would bring to downtown. If the re-zoned areas were fully built out under the new approach, she said, the town's property tax base in that area could increase by more than 20 times.