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Improving the Subdivision Review Process

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Ever wonder why the vast majority of subdivisions look so much alike, despite the fact that they are built in such varied landscapes (forest, meadow, field) and on different terrain (flat, rolling, steep)? The simple answer is that most of them are designed generically, in "cookie-cutter" style, with very little regard to the special natural or cultural features that give many properties their distinctive character.

In most municipalities, subdivision design regulations have never evolved beyond the basic stage where code requirements focus on a few mundane but important points: soil suitability, wetlands, floodplains, street paving, stormwater management; and on a few mundane but rather unimportant points: street frontage, lot-line setbacks, lot area.

The sad reality is that most localities do not require subdivisions to consist of anything more than house lots, streets, and drains. As a result, subdivisions are approved as long as plans show house lots with the minimum required size and frontage, and avoid areas that are inherently unfit for building, such as wetlands and floodplains. When community standards are set so very low, developers often respond with the least imaginative subdivision designs.

As I will argue shortly, it does not have to be this way. In fact, with only a modest amount of additional effort, even smaller communities can implement a much more effective subdivision review process -- a process which will result in better designed and sited residential developments. But first, let me briefly identify four common flaws in the typical subdivision review process.

Four Common Flaws in Subdivision Review

The first flaw is that most local ordinances fail to require that applicants submit detailed surveys or inventories of their site's features, beyond those few features which would render property unbuildable (i.e., wetlands, floodplains, steep slopes). Similarly, most ordinances do not require maps depicting the subject parcel's surrounding context.

Second, most municipalities do not require planning board members to walk the land. Yet a group site visit, which also invites abuttors and others interested in the development, is essential to an understanding of any property.

Third, many local subdivision regulations require highly detailed design drawings at the so-called Preliminary Plan stage. This means that developers may have spent tens of thousands of dollars in preparing their the very first submission. Understandably, developers are not inclined to discard such plans, even if better ways to design the development are pointed out to them by planning staff, planning board members, or others.

Fourth, subdivision layouts are often prepared by people trained in recording site data and in street and drainage issues (surveyors and engineers), but who have little or no expertise in the field of landscape architecture or neighborhood design.

Developing a Better Subdivision Review Process

Three sequential steps can be taken that will dramatically improve the subdivision review process:

1. Require the applicant to prepare a Context Map of the immediate area and a detailed Existing Resources and Site Analysis Map of the property; 
2. Conduct a site walk with the applicant, planning staff, planning board members, and abuttors very early in the process; and 
3. Require the applicant to submit an inexpensive conceptual Sketch Plan as the first layout document, before preparing detailed layout and design drawings.

These straightforward and fairly simple steps can yield major benefits by allowing all parties to understand what is important about the property, and to engage in a process that is collaborative and consensual, instead of adversarial and combative.

End of excerpt

... article goes on to detail the above steps, and then describe four steps to better subdivision design.

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