Zoning Code Audits for Sustainability

Zoning code audits comb through outdated zoning code language that mandates unsustainable neighborhood, site & building design. 

Benefits & Problems Addressed: 

Getting to know how codes work: Zoning codes are typically arranged to specify uses, districts, parking, and special zoning topics.

Detecting inefficient design: Older zoning codes require site & building design once deemed beneficial, but now recognized for driving higher energy use, higher stormwater runoff, and increased vehicel miles traveled. 

Reducing municiple expenditures: Code parameters can benefit a site at taxpayers' expense such as higher infrastructure costs and congestion. 

Chance to update all governing documents & policy: Audits require communities to assess changing economic, environmental and demographic factors. In turn, communities must set forward-looking goals. Audits also highlight where older codes are cumbersome and user unfriendly.  Common updates include improved graphics and tables. 

Tips & Techniques

Where to start: Review how other cities have conducted audits and/or used scorecards. See if these cities have done follow up to see how code changes for efficiency worked or needed change. Gather not only codes, but small area plans, the comprehensive (or general) plan. state & local stormwater permits, state/regional/local street design manuals, and regional transportation plans,  

What to look for - efficient community design: Assess whether rules mandate a sprawling format where your community needs a more compact form for walkability, transit-supportive development, or efficient infrastructure. The main code sections are: (1) Infrastructure & services, (2) subdivision rules and (3) special districts such as mixed-use districts, planned unit development (PUD), traditional neighborhood districts. 

What to look for - efficient street design: Street design is governed by state & local rules. In general, an audit will review street hierarchy, widths, patterns, bike lanes & alley design. Look for curb, gutter & sidewalk dimensions.  Also look at streetscape requirements that direct sidewalk width, landscaping, and rules for locating utilities and amenities. Within both, look for transit requirements for access, location, & design for bus stops, car share and bicycles. For all, look at whether pervious paving materials are allowed or forbidden.

What to look for - efficient parking: Parking can be a standalone section, or parking requirements may be listed for each use. 

What to look for - efficient site design: The bulk of codes are devoted to use districts (e.g. residential, mixed use, commercial). These sections of code list requirements for lot dimensions, setbacks, coverage, and driveways, which direct overall lot sites. 

What to look for - efficient parking:  Methods behind parking rules tend to overstate the amount of parking needed. First, see if your city has special parking plans, pricing systems, districts, or shared lots. For each use, look for minimum & maximum parking ratios, shared parking barriers/provisions, on-street parking. Changes in car ownership and car sharing further reduce the need for parking and should be part of the audit. Some forecast even lower parking demand for driverless cars & transit.

Hot Buttons: Citizens may not want more compact lots & densification. Stakeholders will have differing views on the pros/cons of lot sizes. The aim of reducing impacts by reducing parking is contentious.

Resources & Examples

Zoning Code Audit Tool (2007) - Smart Growth America

Maui Zoning Code Audit (2018) - Maui County, Hawaii


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