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Municipalities can improve customer service and enhance placemaking by giving zoning ordinances a tune-up

Zoning codes have come under fire over the last 25 years for many reasons ranging from the resulting development patterns they create (mandating sprawl) to the confusing language (legalese) used in these documents.   This can lead to a host of negative impacts for a municipality.  Some impact day-to-day operations and others last for generations to come.


Successful downtown facade and streetscape

The sprawl issue has been partially addressed through the use of form-based codes (FBC) – a method to regulate development to achieve a specific form.  These codes are prescriptive in nature, leading to specific requirements that help build walkable urban places.  For example, instead of specifying a minimum setback requirement for buildings, a build-to line or build-to zone is established that requires the front of the building to be close to the public sidewalk.  FBC will also address building fenestration so that adequately sized and proportioned windows are properly placed to encourage the interaction of the private realm (the building) with the public realm (the sidewalk and street).  If a pedestrian looks through a window and sees merchandise displays, dining or entertainment, there is a reason stop and look and also to keep walking in search of more of the same type of experience.  If there are blank walls or boring office spaces, they will likely turn around.

If zoning code language is improved through enhancing standard (Euclidean) zoning districts or form-based code regulations, it still may be confusing if the format of the zoning code is not updated. Zoning codes can be enhanced by better graphics, formatting, and hyperlinking.

Zoning Ordinance Graphics

Color graphics can improve zoning codes

The use of graphics is one of the first places to start.  Regulations that are depicted graphically are generally easier to understand and more effective.  This is particularly true for business owners and citizens that are not familiar with common zoning and development terms.  It can also assist staff and Planning Commission members developing a better understanding of what the zoning text is intended to accomplish.

The formatting of most zoning codes has not changed since the time they were first adopted.  The outline structure is often confusing, and users are forced to jump from section to section just to find basic information.  For example, the lists of permitted and special land uses are often found within the district pages.  The building setback, height, and other bulk and density requirements are often found in a separate schedule of regulations.  This basic information can be accessed at a glance by combining it on a single or two-page spread.

This 2-page spread has both use and development regulations

This 2-page spread has basic information about setbacks, height, and land uses.

Changes in technology also make it possible to get answers to basic questions much faster.   People do it every day when they search the internet and click on hyperlinks.  This same approach works well for zoning codes.  The two-page district spread to the right includes words and terms in blue text.  In the actual zoning code, these terms are hyperlinked to another section or another web site.  One click can take a user right to the parking requirements or setback regulations.  This makes the code user-friendly and it is also word searchable.

For more information on improving zoning ordinances through better formatting, graphics, and other enhancements, contact Clearzoning, Inc. at www.clearzoning.com. To view a sample Clearzoning code, visit www.ruston.org or www.lathrupvillage.org.