October 16, 2005

Do Zoning Codes Make Sprawl Inevitable?

"Many of Connecticut's developers and designers would love to create sociable, dense urban communities with open space set aside in perpetuity, a practice generally known as New Urbanism," writes Chad Floyd, a partner with Centerbrook Architects and Planners, in the Hartford Courant. "Unfortunately, there are many obstacles - the biggest, baddest and most entrenched of which are the state's antiquated zoning codes, which make sprawl all but inevitable."

Floyd notes that some communities purchased entire zoning codes from third-party companies such as MuniCode, which supplied simiar regulations to many other towns across America. "This is but one of many ways the character of our special places erodes," he argues. "Eventually every place begins to look like every other place. ... Sprawl in Connecticut is advanced almost every time somebody pulls a zoning permit."

Case in point:

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 love. Few aspects of 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 building. Houses would be too far back from the water. The 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.

Would most Massachusetts suburban zoning codes allow Concord center and its surrounding neighborhood to be built as it is? I doubt it.

There is usually "knee-jerk, negative reactions" to proposals for more dense neighborhoods, Floyd says, which are dispelled "only after tremendously involved presentations have been made. ... We have a very long way to go to relearn the art of making sociable, humane neighborhoods."

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