In recent months, public discourse surrounding the draft Comprehensive Plan has been dominated by concerns over two issues: proposed amendments to the definition of the Commercial Recreational zoning district, which constitutes 3.8% of the town’s land area; and a perceived lack of commitment on the Town’s part to preserve the 29 existing shoreline access rights-of-way (and to identify more of them).
So when the Sun published Fred Sculco’s December 30th letter, which focused instead on two “unfamiliar zoning parameters” that the draft Comp Plan proposes for future consideration (namely Smart Growth and Form-Based Code), I felt hopeful that the public discourse was finally turning to topics with broader implications for the future development of the town as a whole. I agreed with Mr. Sculco’s request that the Town Council hold public outreach sessions on these zoning concepts and I looked forward to some fresh discussions.
Less than one week later, at the January 4th public hearing on Comp Plan revisions, Mr. Sculco asked the Council to strike the references to Form-Based Code and Smart Growth from the draft Plan altogether. His rationale? As the Sun reported it in an article the next day, because the terms are “unclear” and “weaken the Plan’s ability to preserve the character of the town.”
How can we be so sure that Smart Growth and Form-Based Code threaten our ability to “preserve the character of the town” if we are both unclear on what they mean and denied a chance to examine them? And in a multifaceted town like Westerly, where we find affluent shoreline communities, economically-disadvantaged mill villages, typical suburban subdivisions, and a historic urban center all within the same municipal boundaries, is it accurate to imply the town has a single, collective character?
We need to have a genuine, substantive dialogue on these zoning considerations to know if they have merit. I would like to begin that dialogue by arguing two points: 1) The best way to preserve the full character of the town is by preserving the character of all the villages that comprise it, and 2) Embracing Smart Growth and Form-Based Code would strengthen, not weaken, our ability to preserve the character of Westerly’s historic villages, especially Downtown.
As Mr. Sculco rightly noted in his letter, we need to be clear on what these two zoning concepts mean. The first, Smart Growth, is defined in the draft Plan as encouraging a “mix of building types and uses.” Absent from this definition is a key goal of Smart Growth policies: to combat sprawl by encouraging compact, walkable communities. Smart Growth is not a type of zoning, but rather a style of development. And contrary to what Mr. Sculco seems to suggest, Smart Growth is not an unfamiliar concept to Westerly: the 2008 KeepSpace program, which birthed and/or reaffirmed many of our current attitudes about Downtown revitalization, was explicitly a Smart Growth initiative.
The Town does not have prior experience with the second concept, Form-Based Code, which is described in the Plan as an alternative zoning system that emphasizes “physical form, rather than a separation of land uses, as the predominant organizing principal.” The word “predominant” is important. Few Form-Based Codes that have been enacted in this country focus exclusively on form – they also take land use into account, but as a secondary concern to the quality of the built environment.
Similarly, few Form-Based Codes cover the entirety of a town -- many apply only to high-visibility portions of a community, like a Downtown district of a key travel corridor, where quality design is a priority. The draft Plan appears to propose a hybridized code that incorporates elements of Form-Based Code (namely context-appropriate design standards) that would result in a zoning code that gives equal consideration to form and land use.
All this being said, Mr. Sculco’s call for clarity is warranted; the draft Plan uses the terms “modernized zoning” and “context-based zoning” to refer to Form-Based Code without indicating they are synonyms, and as currently written, both concepts’ definitions omit key details that would help us understand their relevance.
Downtown Westerly – the civic/commercial core and the surrounding 19th-century neighborhoods – is the most obvious proving ground for Smart Growth and Form-Based Code. With the possible exception of the mill villages, it is also the only village in Westerly that would clearly benefit from a change in zoning philosophy. Downtown is a compact, walkable village that contains five nationally-recognized Historic Districts of exceptional design and significance. It developed this way organically, centuries before we ever invented (and retroactively applied) Land Use-based zoning.
Downtown’s well-connected street grid and closely-spaced homes are legacies of a time before automobiles, when walkable development was the only type of development that was practical. Many of our Downtown buildings are mixed-use, with stores on the ground floor and offices or apartments above. In the North End and on Oak Street, we even find a compatible “mix of uses” where neighborhood stores stand shoulder-to-shoulder with houses on residential streets. Our Land Use-based zoning code partitions these neighborhood institutions into a separate zoning district (“Neighborhood Business”), which serves to “erase” these neighborhoods’ historically mixed-use character. It also would prohibit us from building these types of neighborhoods today.
In the historic core of Westerly, which for many is the pride of our town, form is intrinsically linked to character. Downtown is probably the only village in town where more socializing occurs in the public sphere (Wilcox Park, Dixon Square, even front porches and sidewalks) than in the private sphere (inside homes). The built environment of this village contains most of the town’s iconic buildings, among them the Library, Post Office, Town Hall, Train Station, and Armory. The chain stores on Granite Street do not make this town a destination – people come here for the natural beauty of the shoreline and the unique, inviting built environment our Downtown offers.
Our town’s historic Downtown village lacks the notoriety and glamor of Providence’s College Hill or Newport’s Point neighborhood, but it does share with them a comparable size and federal acknowledgement of its historic character and integrity. We still boast dozens of authentic 19th-century streetscapes spread across five Historic Districts. Few in Westerly seem to realize how rare it is to have a substantially-intact historic urban center like ours. We should view the century-old buildings that comprise our Downtown village as multigenerational assets to the community. We should respect them as a collective inheritance. Real design standards – real protections on the appearance of the historic portions of our town – are long overdue.
With all this in mind, we can begin to see how Smart Growth and Form-Based Code could work in tandem to the benefit of a historic village like Downtown: the latter protects the architectural integrity of the village, and the former ensures that new development integrates seamlessly with the village’s existing built environment in terms of setbacks, uses, connectivity, etc.
By that same token, we can see their limited relevance to the postwar, automobile-oriented villages. How much good is accomplished by building one or two walkable, Smart Growth projects in a suburban subdivision that lacks sidewalks and has a circuitous road network? In the short term, such development would be inconsistent with those neighborhoods’ character. Similarly, do we need Form-Based Code in suburban parts of town, where the built environment is defined by contemporary styles that developers need no special encouragement to build?
We are lucky in Westerly to have a wide variety of villages that accommodate a broad range of lifestyle preferences. For most of the town’s villages, our current zoning system is sufficient to preserve the existing community character. People who choose to live in quiet, all-residential areas should not have to worry that a quarry will open up across the street, and that is what Land Use-based zoning is meant to ensure. But Downtown has always been a mixed-use village, and under our Land Use-based zoning code this village of one square mile has been micromanaged into thirteen zoning districts and four zoning overlays. Worse still, none of these zoning districts safeguard the village’s form, and therefore the current system does not meaningfully protect that central aspect of Downtown’s character.
It is time to welcome aspects of Smart Growth and Form-Based Code into Westerly’s “toolbox” of development regulations so that we can begin to position Downtown as a part of town where contemporary and future development occurs harmoniously with historic development. Therefore, I call upon the Town Council to keep the references to Smart Growth and Form-Based Code in the Comp Plan, namely Action Items ECON-1.2.A and HCR-2.3.C, which aim to “incorporate beneficial elements of form-based code (FBC) appropriate to the existing built environment” and “in targeted areas,” respectively.
Furthermore, I recommend that Town staff examine the precedent that communities like Tiverton, RI and Simsbury, CT have set in allowing Form-Based Codes to supersede Land Use-based codes in targeted areas. I suggest we replace the Land Use-based zoning districts contained within Census Tract 508.01, which closely approximates the extent of the historic Downtown village, with one or more hybridized Form-Based Code zoning districts. The new district(s) would give roughly equal weight to Form and Land Use, ensuring that we give the built environment the full consideration it deserves without neglecting our duty to define appropriate, compatible land uses for a given area.
We should also develop a set of Design Review Guidelines after having conducted a thorough inventory of architectural styles found in Downtown. The Town, probably through the Architectural Review Board, will need to base its authority over the form of new Downtown development in these Guidelines. Finally, we might consider reaching out to GrowSmartRI, a statewide advocacy organization, to craft strong and appropriate Smart Growth standards to guide future development in the village.
The writer is a resident of Westerly.