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The Power of Careful Zoning

Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, October 18, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

Zoning laws are designed to empower municipalities to control their own destiny. Each city, borough and township is supposed to develop a comprehensive plan to show how it wants to grow, and then adopt zoning to carry out its plan.

In reality, zoning ordinances rarely produce great places to live and work.

Most of them establish isolated zones that separate housing, offices, and stores. That means people must drive for all their activities. New buildings are typically strung out along highways, for easy access by car, and bordered by seemingly endless parking lots. Landscapes quickly become traffic-congested junkscapes.

Zoning laws also tend to focus on the development of open land. Scores of older municipalities, like my town of Pottstown, have already been developed. We don’t have much vacant land, and most of it consists of small parcels scattered throughout the town. Our future prosperity depends largely on the re-use of existing buildings and the compatibility of new development with the old, but conventional zoning doesn’t address that need.

To make zoning more relevant to older communities, Pottstown recently developed an innovative land use ordinance with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The ordinance is designed to reinforce, not undermine, the historic development pattern that gives communities like Pottstown their small town charm.

We agreed that after our ordinance was adopted and tried out for a year, we would share our experience with other older municipalities in the Delaware Valley. Pottstown’s ordinance was adopted in September 2003, and we’ve been pleased with the results. Several new homes are being built on small lots that had been vacant for decades, and we’re seeing higher quality proposals than we’ve had in the past.

Next month, Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities will host the first of three free seminars to show how ordinances like Pottstown’s can help revitalize older municipalities throughout the Delaware Valley.

Pottstown’s land use law is unusual in several ways:

It is easy to read. The ordinance uses plain language, charts, and photographs to explain how we want Pottstown to grow. Anyone can download it, free, from Pottstown’s website (www.pottstown.org).

It controls the appearance of new construction. Zoning laws typically control the size of new buildings and where they may be placed, but not what they look like. However, state law allows older municipalities to protect their historic resources. Therefore, Pottstown has created a Conservation District encompassing the downtown and all residential neighborhoods that requires new construction to be compatible with existing architecture.

The ordinance relaxes parking requirements to make it easier for property owners to use the vacant upper stories of existing downtown buildings. Parking spaces can be shared by commercial users during the day and residential users at night. New parking lots must be placed to the side and rear of buildings so they are less obtrusive and blend in with traditional neighborhoods.

Ample shade trees are required along streets and in parking lots, where one tree must be planted for every two parking spaces. Suburbs enjoy horizontal green space in the form of open fields. Towns can be just as verdant by going vertical with a shade tree canopy.

Instead of using arbitrary measurements for side yards, setbacks, and building size, the ordinance calls for new buildings to be about the same size and have the same setbacks as existing buildings on the block.

The ordinance establishes design guidelines for new buildings in Pottstown’s strip commercial development areas. Major chain stores and fast-food franchises are increasingly willing to design buildings compatible with traditional architecture if the municipality asks them to.

Experience shows that municipalities do better through voluntary negotiations than heavy-handed regulations. To make it easier for property owners to comply with our ordinance, Pottstown has contracted with a design professional to provide free advice for applicants who want to erect a new building or modify the appearance of an existing one. We’ve hired landscape architects and town planners on an ad hoc basis to suggest improvements to plans that have been submitted. For the most part, developers have been happy to cooperate.

It’s not enough to have a vision and pass an ordinance. Older municipalities must find creative ways to persuade property owners to do the right thing. In Pottstown, we haven’t arrived yet, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.






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