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Thursday, January 12, 2006

How zoning causes sprawl

This is from a wonderful op-ed that was published in the Hartford Courant. The argument, though particular to New England, in fact describes a pandemic: Our cities are dull because we have leigislated away all active human intelligence. Everything that would-be urban pioneers affect to love in older cities would be impossible to replicate under current zoning laws.
Sprawl in Connecticut is advanced almost every time somebody pulls a zoning permit. Good intentions about sprawl become academic when someone goes in for a permit. It is far too late for lofty thoughts. All that matters is how well you've met the zoning code.

Zoning is, in effect, the codification of a town's desires for itself - its 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. Most developers would like to avoid appeals. And 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 The Courant wants, and it's not what a growing segment of the population wants, but it is what our zoning codes demand, so it is what we have and what we will continue to have until we change our codes.

On the whole, our zoning 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 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.

The village would be too spread out and suburban in feel. You could have the best architects in the country working on a new Essex, but if they're following the Essex zoning code, they'll arrive at something very different from our town. And this disconnect is not unique to Essex; it's typical of most Connecticut towns.

posted by Greg Swann | 8:24 AM  


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