Form-Based Codes Lite

There may be a way to supply some of the benefits of form-based codes without heavy-handed aesthetic regulation. In theory, a form-based code could be limited to verifiable characteristics such as setbacks, yard types, building height, frontage size and lot coverage.

Read Time: 2 minutes

February 12, 2013, 12:13 PM PST

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


In a forthcoming article, Nicole Garnett of Notre Dame Law School critiques form-based codes, on the reasonable ground that these codes often include meticulous aesthetic regulations that may be difficult and expensive to comply with.

However, there may be a way to supply some of the benefits of form-based codes without heavy-handed aesthetic regulation.  In theory, a form-based code could be limited to verifiable characteristics such as setbacks, yard types, building height, frontage size and lot coverage.

On the positive side, a form-based code focusing on the sort of objective indicators traditionally regulated by zoning would allow a developer to build buildings that were at least somewhat compatible with the rest of a neighborhood (or with the city's vision of what a neighborhood should look like), without having to pay the costs of aesthetic regulation.  For example, a city could mandate that all buildings in a neighborhood be small enough to create a dense, low-rise neighborhood, without telling the developer what the windows, facades or other architectural details should look like.

On the other hand, there may be a trade-off between flexibility and beauty: a zoning code that only addressed objective indicia of community character such as building height and width would allow the creation of buildings that on paper are compatible with a city's plan, and yet are poorly built and/or do not look particularly good. 

But even such a permissive form-based code could be used to create neighborhoods that are no uglier than existing sprawl and are far more pedestrian-friendly.  So for a city concerned about housing costs and burdening developers, a form-based code that does not regulate aesthetics might be an adequate compromise between a more rigorous form-based code and status quo zoning.


Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

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