Monday, March 21, 2005

More on Small Town Planning

We now have about a 20-year history of zoning in our rural town. We followed what seemed to be a typical pattern of defining the residential zone as being the already built-up area, barring it to commercial and industrial activity (with no distinction made between the two), leaving those to be addressed on a case basis in the non-residential areas only.

One result has been that nearly all of the residential development has taken place in scattered one-lot sites outside the residential zones (there being no room for it inside the residential zones) and very little commercial development has taken place at all, since it isn’t permitted where it would be accessible to customers.

Another result seems to be the dilution of a sense of community as new residents locate themselves in isolation to each other and to village residents. The intent may be to get away from it all, but the result is a trend toward random, low-density sprawl. Home sites and access roads increasingly pock the woodlands that people see as the hallmark of the town. At the same time, the relative isolation of residents makes it difficult to find a consensus on amending the ordinances to have a better shot at achieving the pattern of settlement that they want.

Expanding the borders of the residential zones to give those who’d like to live in the village the option of doing so ought to be an obvious way to slow the invasion of the woodlands, but it somehow seems to be a counter-intuitive idea to those who like living in the woods. To them, the idea of a bigger village takes away their sense of being away from it all.

There is some sentiment that having no commerce in the village is a bad result, but there is also a reluctance to rezone it to residential/commercial, probably because we have such a loose definition of “commercial.” Replacing the single-purpose residential zones with performance-standard zoning (allowing any activity that is no more obnoxious than the average neighbor) might be a good solution. For one thing, it would avoid the need to write a lot of activity-specific ordinances. (Last week someone approached me with the suggestion that we adopt an anti-racetrack ordinance in case someone might some day want to build a track here.) For industrial sites I like the idea of a floating zone. The town has no legitimate interest in selecting one site over another, other than to rule out sites in sensitive areas. And, since we don’t know what industry, if any, might apply, the choice of an economically sound site is best left to the applicant. The specific regulations would be handled as with performance-standard zoning.