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Most towns have a comprehensive plan that indicates the broad vision of the community, potential land use locations, and, some criteria for development decisions. In addition to the comprehensive plan there is the zoning bylaw (or code). The zoning bylaw sets out strict regulations that properties must meet such as density, use, and setbacks. The comprehensive plan is usually broad in nature. The zoning bylaw is much more specific.
Design guidelines provide a more detailed image than the broad goals of the comprehensive plan, yet they allow greater flexibility and creativity in addressing design issues than is typically found in a zoning bylaw.
It is critical that any design guidelines be clear enough to be understood by the public – not just by professional architects or planners. This means they should avoid jargon whenever possible, clearly explain any technical terms, and avoid vague language such as calling for a building to “be consistent” with those around it. Creating clear and understandable guidelines is also important for ensuring that they are legally defensible. …
Where is that fine line between guidelines being so exact they are rigid and stifling, and guidelines being so subjective they become hard to interpret and enforce?
There is one question continually faced by those involved in writing design guidelines: Where is that fine line between guidelines being so exact they are rigid and stifling, and guidelines being so subjective they become hard to interpret and enforce?
This is the dilemma between prescriptive guidelines which are regulatory and rigid, and descriptive guidelines which are focused on providing input into the design process and flexibility.
Descriptive guidelines allow more creativity and are adaptable to the conditions of the site, but can be so open to interpretation that it can be difficult to refuse a development that shows only a minimal response to design issues. This type of guideline often indicates that a certain response to a design issue is only “encouraged” or “discouraged.”
Prescriptive guidelines are less open to interpretation, but can inhibit exploring various design options — and sometimes may even prohibit a good, creative design solution. This type of guideline usually has a requirement that must be incorporated into a project’s plans. …
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