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Developing at the Edge

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Polls often show that many Americans would prefer to live in a small town or village. The slower pace, the human scale of buildings, the sense of community, and the ability to walk to shops, schools, and playgrounds are all attractive features of small town life. But small towns and villages have long faced a variety of challenges, such as the loss of downtown businesses, ugly commercial strip development, and poorly designed housing at the village edge.

In fast-growing metropolitan regions, villages are especially vulnerable to large and sudden increases in population and an overwhelming sea of development. In rural areas, village residents may be hungry for growth and increased property tax base. Adding new development within or at the edge of a village, if done well, can retain those village features that the residents cherish, reinforce a more compact development pattern that is cheaper and easier to service than sprawl, while also providing for economic growth.

Basic Tools for Guiding New Development on the Edge

illustration of house and large tree at edge of fieldIt is often said that if an older village were to burn down, it could not be re-built under today’s zoning and subdivision codes. Thus, it comes as little surprise when new commercial and residential developments added at the edge of a village do not continue traditional building styles and land use patterns. This does not have to be the case.

There are several ways to promote quality development on the edge of an existing village. First, through the comprehensive plan and future land use map, village officials can maintain as much as possible the current pattern of compact development and retain a clear edge between the village and the countryside.

An especially helpful practice is an “official map” which designates future street networks for developers to follow. The elected government body adopts the official map and village officials will not issue a building permit for any building within the lines of any street laid out on the official map In this way, the official map can guide the expansion of streets and the location of new development. For example, an official map designating a grid pattern with short blocks can enable a village to expand in an orderly and compact style.

A capital improvements program (CIP) is a schedule of the infrastructure a village will install or repair and how to pay for it. The CIP reflects decisions of when and where infrastructure will be provided and expanded, in particular central sewer and water service.

There should be a close tie between the zoning at the edge of the village and sewer and water service areas. The idea is to promote higher density and mixed-use development within the village, not extend sewer and water lines far out into the countryside. Editor’s Note: for more on the use of sewer and water extensions as a growth management tool, see Kate Lampton’s “Developing a Sewer Ordinance: One Town’s Experience” (PCJ #44).

To direct commercial development on the edge of the village, zoning can limit the square footage of new commercial buildings to discourage big box stores. Instead, mixed-use development can be encouraged, by permitting a range of neighborhood-oriented retail such as small groceries and convenience stores.

Zoning can also restrict the number of curb cuts (driveways) and require setbacks with vegetation to create a green buffer between commercial businesses and the highway. Finally, a village can use design review standards to discourage (or prohibit) new buildings that are significantly dissimilar from what already exists. Design review is especially appropriate for historic villages where tourism is an important industry.

End of excerpt

… article continues with a look at how Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Richmond, Vermont, have adopted policies to better integrate development “at the edge.”


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