Form Based Code–The Latest Greatest Planning Panacea?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Kudos to Albemarle County for assembling four Virginia Form Based Code (FBC) practitioners as a kick-off “Sidewalk Talk” presentation last night (4/29).  The facts and opinions shared by these folks provided an improved understanding of the goals, strategies, tactics and limitations of FBC.

Albemarle’s first FBC is being developed for the Rio+29 Small Area, but not including any Single Family Home Developments in that footprint.  While I remain highly skeptical of the FBC panacea, I am attempting to learn more.

Planning consultant Harriman, who writes such FBC for localities defines FBC in this way:

Form-Base Code (FBC) is a relatively new and innovative method of managing growth and shaping development to achieve a specific urban form and mix of uses as preferred by a given community. Unlike conventional zoning, Form-Base Code addresses not only development but the relationship between public and private spaces such as the interaction between streets, blocks, and buildings in terms of form, scale and massing, and the use of frontage areas.  FBC creates a predictable public realm by including specific standards for the design of streets and open spaces, and focusing primarily on the physical form of development, with a lesser focus on building use than conversional zoning regulations.

In my listening and research on this issue I find several key elements are the part of just aboutimage every justification for establishing a FBC:

  • Existing “Euclidian” is broken
  • Current zoning produces auto dependent development patterns
  • Current zoning is harmful to our health and the health of the planet
  • Only FBC can provide assurance of a built environment that is transit and pedestrian friendly places of dense economic and social interaction
  • Minimum Parking Requirements are bad

The Form Based Codes Institute, who was hired for Charlottesville’s FBC in the Strategic Investment Area, has gone even further suggesting:

“Conventional land use regulations have contributed to a great divide in our country, producing sprawling places that are marked by a stark separation of both uses and people. But form-based zoning is emerging as a creative tool for cities to remedy the inequities often produced by the conventional system.”

Based on my research, I remain completely unconvinced that FBC will have any significant positive impact on remedying existing societal inequities. In fact I fear FBC, due to its limited geographic scope, may actually exacerbate such issues as infrastructure investments (public and private) flow more freely to FBC regions of the community.

Last night, the former Executive Director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, Takis Karantonis, indicated that the biggest deliverable of form based code is predictability.  While this is highly desired by the development community several speakers indicated an amount of “friction” amongst neighbors that missed the opportunity to weigh in on each individual development project under the previous zoning paradigm.

Susan Berry-Hill, Town of Leesburg Director of Planning and Zoning, indicated that at its most elemental, Form Based Codes are proactive, plan the parks and allow the buildings to frame the parks rather than vice versa.  She continued:

Form Based Codes are first and foremost about place making

Interestingly, all of the FBCs highlighted by the panel took well in excess of 18 months to draft and enact [Columbia Pike took five years].  Currently Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have mandated a FBC by December 2019.  The Principal Planner for Arlington County Matt Mattausek warned that developing an FBC on a tight deadline assures the need for a multitude of amendments.  Columbia Pike, which was drafted over five years, has 23 amendments.

imageForm Based Code is the latest in an evolution of planning philosophy that dates back to 1981 Seaside Development Code in Florida.  Such terms as “Traditional Neighborhood Development” (TND, “Smart Code”, Smart Growth” and even Albemarle’s Neighborhood Model are a part of this evolutionary tract.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes that for some limited geographic regions Form Based Code’s highly prescriptive demands and lack of design flexibility will be acceptable when combined with increased process predictability.  That being said, we continue to believe the best methodology to prove this planning concept is an optional overlay district.

If the FBC benefits are as great as advertised, why would a property owner choose to go with a less predictable process – perhaps because the government can’t accurately predict market demands.  An optional overlay would accomplish the community’s goals of form based code development without hampering property owners rights.

Albemarle is just now starting this engagement process, there are miles to go before we get to this decision point but keeping the end in mind may assist in our discussions AND getting the goals accomplished.

Stay Tuned.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credit: Vermont Development Conference 2014 Steven Cecil AIA ASLA

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