If you blinked during the Franklin County Fiscal Court’s meeting last week — or decided against watching a local meeting long enough to binge the entirety of a TV miniseries — you may have missed one of the more substantive conversations this reporter has heard in its chambers.
The topic: zoning.
Traditionally, zoning is a bit of a snoozefest. There are 468 pages of Frankfort and Franklin County’s zoning ordinances, after all. Simply put, I am not reading all of those pages and it’s likely that you’re not either.
But those 468 pages dominate and dictate our experience of Franklin County as much as almost anything else.
And last Thursday Magistrate J.W. Blackburn, along with a seeming majority of the fiscal court, said he wanted to see them changed significantly.
The idea: moving Franklin County towards a form-based code, as opposed to traditional Euclidean zoning which focuses on separating land uses.
In the middle of a conversation largely held between Blackburn and Franklin County Planning & Zoning Director Robert Hewitt, County Attorney Rick Sparks interjected and asked someone to explain the difference.
Hewitt did so at the meeting, but allow someone who’s done just enough reading to be dangerous on the matter take a stab.
A form-based code empowers local governments to say “this is what we want this part of Franklin County to look like,” whereas Euclidean zoning empowers them to say “this is what we want this part of Franklin County to do.”
Form-based zoning is concerned primarily with the space between buildings, street widths, building heights, public space improvements and more. It also allows for a wide array of uses within the prescribed building guidelines.
If you think about today’s code as 80% about the land use and 20% about what type of structure is built, think of form-based code as the opposite 80/20 split. It’s not an abandonment of use as a parameter; it’s a switching of the emphasis.
A Euclidean code is uniquely post-war; it’s generally auto-oriented, and it arose as something of a response to past concerns with extreme density — think the hellish New York City tenements — that caused poor conditions in the early in 1900s.
A lot of it boils down to an age-old question that some philosopher once posed: “what is the good life?”
Euclidean code is what separates single-family housing, as well as other types of housing, from most non-residential space. It’s mostly about separating where you live from where you work, play, eat, go to a doctor’s appointment, and more. We have Euclidean zoning to thank for the suburbs that many people love; to some extent, we also have it to thank for the strip malls that many don’t love.
Form-based code generally operates under the idea that “the good life” involves the mixing of non-residential and residential uses.
In practice, form-based code is not often applied to an entire county; either elements of it are blended with the existing code or certain districts are created to become form-based. Down south in Chattanooga and our neighbors to the north in Cincinnati have created a form-based code for particular swaths of the city that don’t extend into the more auto-oriented outlying areas. Across the Ohio, the tiny and compact community of Bellevue, Kentucky, adopted it wholesale. Major metros like Denver, Miami and Nashville have gone whole-hog as well.
Even in Frankfort, the Architectural Review Board downtown, though still operating under an overall Euclidean Zoning style, incorporates some form-based concepts in its building characteristic requirements.
All of that said, codes are simply tools to achieve what is laid out as desirable via the planning process. Even the staunchest supporter of form-based code would likely agree that it is not a panacea.
At least according to the Vice President of the libertarian think tank Reason, less than 1% of cities have adopted form-based codes. So there are serious drawbacks to form-based code that deserve reckoning with.
Put simply: land use matters to people.
It’s telling that one meeting after advocating as a citizen for form-based code, newly-appointed planning commissioner Brent Sweger — who has for at least a decade been a public advocate for form-based code — and several other commissioners questioned an applicant for a zone change on Hickman Hill Road about the exact intended use for the property.
It remains to be seen what, if any, effect Blackburn’s discussion will have on the final product of Frankfort’s comprehensive plan zoning code, but it’s a discussion that more of us should be having.
Expect more as the comprehensive plan update begins to kick off.