Zoning Out the Best Laid Plans

Newspaper editorial writers, generally on a tight deadline, often characterize architects – along with developers and engineers – as heavies overwhelming local land-use boards in pursuit of nefarious, land-gobbling sprawl. We may be easy whipping boys, but the reality is that here in Connecticut, and in many places across the nation, architects would love to create sociable, dense urban communities with open space set aside in perpetuity, a practice generally known as New Urbanism. Unfortunately there are many obstacles -- the biggest, worst, and most entrenched being antiquated zoning codes that make sprawl all but inevitable.

Zoning codes began to appear in Connecticut in the boom years following World War II, a time when few questioned the American Dream of owning your own patch of land. Writing zoning codes from scratch would have been a daunting undertaking for town volunteers at that time, so the codes were purchased lock, stock, and barrel from supplier companies eager to make money distributing zoning boiler plate.

One of the largest such suppliers is the perfectly respectable MuniCode, which since 1961 has supplied zoning codes to 23 Connecticut towns and cities. Not bad for a company located in Tallahassee, Fl. You might ask what a Tallahassee outfit knows about the special character of the New England village of Westbrook? Probably not much. So over time, Westbrook has taken on the suburban look of MuniCode's 1,600 other client communities across the United States, which is a shame.

This is but one of many ways that the character of our special places erodes. Eventually every place begins to look like every other place, and Connecticut's forested landscape becomes as chewed up with mini-estates as the desert around Tucson is with ranchettes. Sprawl in Connecticut is advanced almost every time somebody pulls a zoning permit. Good intentions about rational planning become academic when someone goes in for a permit. At that point it’s too late for lofty thoughts. All that matters is how well you meet the zoning code.

Zoning is, in effect, the codification of a town's self-image. Developers, architects, and engineers are smart enough to know they must conform, or they will suffer. Zoning appeals are no fun; they are expensive and unbelievably time-consuming. Even once you reach the Board of Zoning Appeals level, staff and board members do not welcome blue-sky discussions about alternative ways of doing things. Sprawl may not be what an enlightened segment of the population wants, but it’s what our zoning codes demand, so sprawl is what we get and what we’ll continue to get until we change our zoning codes.

On the whole, our codes are nonsensical. In my town of Essex, as in most Connecticut towns, it would be impossible to use the town's zoning code to build anew the very hometown Essex citizens today love. Few aspects of the urban density that make Essex village special are allowed by the town's zoning code. In a new Essex, buildings would be too far apart, and they would be placed too far from the sidewalk. There would be too much space around each dwelling. Houses would be too far back from the water. Streets would be too wide, and houses wouldn't be tall enough to have the elegant proportions of those built in the 18th, and especially the 19th centuries. The village would be spread out and suburban in feel.

You could have the best architects in the country working on a new Essex, but by following the Essex zoning code they'd arrive at something different from our town. The disconnect is not unique to Essex; it's typical of most Connecticut towns. Zoning codes in Connecticut and other states have failed to evolve with planning philosophies because volunteer boards tend to be overly impressed by the authoritative look and sheer weight of their codes. Documents so massive get taken for granted, like the Bible. Imagine rewriting the Bible, complete with cross-references, mathematical calculations, and technical definitions! The impetus would have to be huge and the benefits obvious. Unfortunately, they are not. Knee-jerk reactions to the idea of dense neighborhood layouts are usually negative. New Urbanism is accepted only after very involved presentations are made, and too often not even then.

But zoning codes can be changed, and there is plenty of help out there for it. Ironically, it is developers and designers who have led the way. Enter Leyland-Alliance, a developer who earlier this decade attempted to introduce a New Urbanism development on a former airport property for the Griswold Airport property in Madison. Its dense village layout of 127 housing units on 42 acres was designed by the team of Duaney Plater-Zyberk and architect Robert Orr, veterans of the seminal New Urbanism town of Seaside in the Florida panhandle. You'd think this would be a no-brainer, right? Wrong. The scheme has been mired in controversy for years.

And what has been the rallying cry of local citizens? Too dense! Despite receiving requisite approvals, the developers faced likely legal appeals, so on Sept. 30, 2009, after years of effort, they agreed to sell the land for $9.7 million to a conservation organization. Future developers no doubt will take notice: don’t make waves, just follow the rules, however stultifying and outdated they may be.

We have a very long way to go in order to relearn the art of making sociable, humane neighborhoods, and we know that suburban sprawl is here to stay. But there are enough tracts of virgin land still left, and of course there are enough brown field sites around, that ample opportunity exists for bringing the combined principles of New Urbanism and conservation of open space to our communities.

To be successful at it, we’ll have to go right to the root of the problem and rewrite our zoning codes. This will require noisemaking from the media and from other shapers of public opinion, and it won't happen without top-down leadership from state government in some form. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the architects, developers, and engineers who have been true standard-bearers for change in the Land of Steady Habits.

Photo: Essex (CT) Park by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons