Form-Based Design Standards for Smaller Communities

Although several Maine towns have adopted form based coding (FBCs), communities with limited resources and little or no professional staff can achieve very similar results through a simpler set of form-based design standards, (FBDS) as listed below. In Freeport, design regulations (in Chapters 21 and 22 of its zoning) apply in two central districts, one primarily commercial, the other primarily residential. When zoning or design review standards are being developed, neighborhood meetings are held to learn about neighborhood concerns. Ordinance language is developed accordingly. Although its fairly basic design standards have served this community very well, other towns might want to supplement them with more specific language, particularly if this approach is new to Planning Board members.

One big advantage of FBDS is that they can be written in-house or with minimal consultant time. Creating FBCs typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes as much as $150,0000, even for small rural communities with very small downtowns. There are no obvious downsides to the simpler approach if the standards address the items in the below list (which go beyond the simple Freeport model). Of course, as with all new codes, attention must be paid to help the community understand any new language (e.g. street frontage buildout), and new processes for administering the design standards, besides building consensus on desired design characteristics.

My approach to planning, since my first job at Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission (SMRPC) forty years ago, has been to find the most cost- effective regulation, providing towns the most for their money. In researching the new Rural by Design, I discovered another community that achieves great results with FBDS -- Davidson, NC, which considered FBCs but decided against them (as has Freeport), figuring it could achieve much the same results without increasing the complexity of their codes.

Key elements of Form-based Design Standards include:

  • Maximum Front Setback, with allowances for alcoves.
  • Minimum Building Height, with requirements for functional upper floors and height proportional to street width.
  • Primary door entrances along the street side opening onto sidewalks (or opening to a street corner)
  • Minimum glazing requirements along the street side for commercial buildings
  • Reduce on-lot parking requirements
  • Parking to the rear or side. Screen side parking from streets by walls, fences, or landscaping about 42 inches high.
  • Minimum street frontage built-up to minimize gaps between buildings
  • Maximum block length
  • Broader use-mix within buildings and blocks
  • Shade tree planting along streets and in parking lots
  • Greater mix of different residential building types. Permit single-family, two-family, or three-family homes on any lot in most residential districts

Readers can learn more about “lighter” FBCs and design standards in Simplify That Code!, a recent article published by the American Planning Association. 

This article was originally published on June 17, 2017.

Written by

Randall Arendt

Randall Arendt is President of Greener Prospects based in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Rural by Design, published by APA Planners Press.