How to Build a Neighborhood(?) Part 1

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

How to build a neighborhood. How to build a neighborhood?

These are the same words but the question mark changes the meaning. Why do I bring up this fine point of grammar? Because it has a serious meaning to the work of your town’s planning and zoning commission pertaining to the development of new residential subdivisions. Even with the continued economic downturn, there are still new neighborhoods being built, so your planning and zoning commission keeps busy attending to its zoning and subdivision regulations. At the same time, anticipating the inevitable full economic recovery and uptick in housing construction, your planning and zoning commission needs to use the time it has now to think into the future about what needs to remain, what needs to be updated and what needs to be added to the regulations vis-à-vis residential subdivisions.

“How to build a neighborhood” is a declarative statement and offers itself as a set of rules. The zoning and subdivision regulations your town has (or does not have) serves this role through the provisions that it details. The addition of building, fire safety, environmental and public health codes, for examples, are rules as well that apply to residential construction. All of these can be technical and serve as checklists of the many items that need to be done in order to get approvals and permits for new residential construction. If an application meets all of the requirements, then legally it must be approved. It looks at things from a ground level perspective.

“How to build neighborhood?” is an inquisitive statement and offers itself as an opportunity for people, including your planning and zoning commission, to provide input and ideas. This question is asked when a subdivision application is reviewed so as to determine the best way to balance individual land use rights and community needs, as well as to balance specific characteristics of the parcel of land to be developed and the overall character of your town. This question is also asked as part of municipal planning (an important first step before actually writing new regulations or updating existing ones), so as determine if regulations are continuing to serve well the needs, wishes and goals of your community. This type of discussion can be philosophical and tends to look at things from an above the ground perspective, looking down at a land area to be developed and its place in the entirety of your town.

All of this planning and zoning work for residential neighborhoods gets to two definitions.

House: a structure in which a person or people live. This is a concrete, physical term.

Home: a place or general area where people live and/or raise a family. This can be an abstract, hopefully memorable concept.

When your town’s planning and zoning commission creates, administers and enforces zoning and subdivision regulations, it uses the “how to build a neighborhood” statement and “how to build a neighborhood?” question. It also thinks about the “house” and the “home” definitions. There need to be rules for a consistent and fair framework of what to do in your town for people to readily access and to understand, and for your town to administer and to enforce. There also needs to be flexibility in order to recognize the uniqueness of different parts of your town, various parcels of land, and varied needs and wishes of individual property owners and homeowners. Not all regulations can fit neatly in a cookie cutter manner for all types of residential neighborhoods. Yet, having no regulations can bring about haphazard and incongruous land uses.

How to build a neighborhood is no easy task, be it for the landowner, the builder, the homeowner or your town’s government. It has been and continues to be a very complex challenge. For example, look at the large subdivision proposal in Killingly. Yet, it is planning and zoning work that always must happen since we all want good houses (or other places) to live in and good homes in which to lead our lives.

In a continuation of this article, I will talk specifics, based upon the above concepts, about several types of residential neighborhoods, focusing on “traditional/suburban” and “conservation” models. I will also show how regulations can provide for and affect these (and other) subdivision designs and the make up of your town. So, stay tuned.

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