Form-based zoning becoming popular for its difference from conventional zoning

Form-based zoning is starting to catch on with local governments in Michigan. There are key differences between form-based and conventional zoning which has led to its popularity.

As more discussion focuses on “form-based zoning” it may be helpful to compare form-based zoning (FBZ) with conventional zoning used throughout Michigan. FBZ is philosophically a different approach to preparing a zoning ordinance which is seen as having a large number of advantages. See “Advantages of form-based zoning account for its growing popularity for a discussion of those advantages.

First, FBZ is different from conventional zoning because its emphasis is on the form of the built environment and not as much on what goes on inside the built environment. Conventional zoning’s largest emphasis is on the types of land uses allowed in a zoning district, segregating different land uses to different zoning districts.

The FBZ zoning map – sometimes called a “regulating plan” – is constructed around street types, a community- or region-wide transect analysis or an existing building form. Traditional zoning maps focus on land use districts. For example streets are categorized and land fronting on a major through street has one zoning classification (mixed commercial), and side streets might have another zoning classification (residential). 

Conventional zoning has its focus on land use. The zoning map is painted with a broad brush to indicate areas that are generally alike because of a common land use – for example, residential. However, within that residential zone there may be several different types of residential land uses. FBZ is much more neighborhood-centric. The “residential” district in a FBZ may group together homes with similar form, or characteristics such as how they are placed on the parcel, building shape, etc. It is likely that there will be several FBZ districts to one traditional zoning residential zone.

FBZ pays more attention to public spaces and how private property interfaces with those public spaces. Regulatory emphasis might be on a buildings front (the elements on a building façade) and how it interacts with the public street. Regulation also pays attention to the streetscape and open spaces such as parks, plazas, greens, and so on. Traditional zoning often completely ignores these areas.

FBZ pays much more attention to how a building is situated on its parcel, how much of a parcel is covered, and so on.

Conventional zoning will often not have any architectural standards, if it does, that part of the ordinance is long, complex, hard to understand, and often subject to ridicule for over-regulation. FBZ’s focus on form usually means architectural standards are not needed. The emphasis on form is less specific than architectural standards which allow for more variation and creativity by permit applicants.

While there has been an effort to have more tables and graphics in traditional zoning, the FBZ really excels in this area. It is a very graphic-oriented ordinance and often uses many tables to convey information.

In conventional zoning, each zoning district lists permitted uses, special uses, and maybe conditional uses. It can be pages long. The list is often very precise and detailed. Some zoning district lists of land uses use classification systems like the North American Industrial Classification Code (NAICS) to define their list of uses. Because FBZ focuses on form, and has less concern for the precise land use allowed, the same lists are much shorter, using general terms which have broader inclusive meanings. The idea is to say “retail” is allowed, and then have a much shorter list of exceptions that would not be allowed, e.g.; drive-through restaurants, sexually oriented businesses, and so on.

Maybe most importantly, FBZ tends to have a much faster review process. This saves the applicant time and money. This saves the local government time and effort spent on each application. This is done because the process itself is quicker, but also accomplished because there is less need for detailed reviews such as special use permits and planned unit developments, because much of the work is already done in the FBZ, and can be administered by staff.

There are many other differences. One can learn more at the Form-Based Code Institute website.

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