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Design Narberth FAQs

Responses from Sean Metrick, Senior Design Planner with the Montgomery County Planning Commission, project manager for Design Narberth.

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Why is this zoning project being done now? What led to its initiation and what future planning and community decision-making will it help define or facilitate? — Laura Jackson, April 2012

The form based code project is a grass roots effort begun by local elected officials and members of the Narberth Planning Commission. The Montgomery County Planning Commission was contacted in late 2011 to propose a work schedule to plan, draft, and adopt a new zoning code for Narberth known as a form based code. A form based code is a type of zoning that does a particularly outstanding job of translating a community's vision for what it will look like and how it will function in the future into enforceable standards that work within the guidelines of Pennsylvania State Planning Law. Think of it as an improved tool to preserve what the public likes about its community as well as a tool to create a template for change.

What are the advantages of form-based zoning? For example, how has it aided other communities that have used it? What kinds of future decisions and governance does it help facilitate? — Laura Jackson, April 2012

The main advantage of form based codes in general is that they cover important details that conventional codes ignore. These details include placement and form of buildings, including what they look like from the street, as well as specific standards for the way sidewalks and streets should be designed. The goal of the details is to create or, in the case for most of Narberth, preserve a walkable urban design that permits different housing types and commercial uses where appropriate. The appropriateness and geography of land uses and design are determined through a public planning process. A form based code does the same thing a conventional zoning code does- It determines the enforceable standards by which land and buildings are designed and used.

How is ( or is not ) this form-based zoning project related first, to making any future changes to an ordinance, and second, to the work of what we are calling the Coffee + Community Coalition to attract and create businesses opportunities that strengthen the quality of our local day to day community life and economy here in Narberth? — Laura Jackson, April 2012

The form based code we are working on will entirely replace Narberth's existing zoning ordinance, creating unified standards and a process for review and approval of projects of individual property owners. All zoning is, by its nature, limiting in that it defines what a property owner can (and can't) build on his or her property and what type of activity can take place there. The goal of community planning and good urban design is to resolve these tensions in ways that benefit the property owner and the public. Zoning codes also operate under a 75+ year legacy of zoning law and practice that stipulates, among many other things, that all properties in an area be entitled to the same treatment under the law (due process). In terms of downtown business development you can think of zoning as laying the groundwork for the general types of commercial business opportunities in a general area; but it must, by its nature, remain neutral with regard to what and who those businesses specifically are and how the code is applied.

Have there been any studies (or any discussion) of the impact of form-based zoning on:
a) Property values;
b) Municipality real estate tax assessments; and
c) Effect on residential and commercial rents.
Is there a sample ordinance – or better yet – an example of a form-based zoning ordinance that is now in effect?
Thanks — Andy Haakenson, May 25, 2012

Dear Andy, Thanks for posting your question. I see in your message two questions.

1) Have there been any studies of the impact of form-based zoning on property values, assessments, and rents?

I am not aware of any studies that have looked at changes in property values and been able to control for all other factors and ascribe a form-based code's impact on those values, assessments, and rents. Just so we're all on the same page- your property value and what a landlord charges a tenant for rent are moving targets - a result of both parties agreeing to a price at an "arm's length transaction". The assessed value of your property is what the Montgomery County Board of Assessment thinks your property is worth if it were sold today. You'll notice that your assessed value is quite lower because it is indexed to the last time the county did a county-wide assessment of all properties. I believe that was in 1999. The BOA adjusts all present sales prices back to this date by the same ratio for all properties to get the assessed value. LM school district, the County, and Narberth then divide their annual budgets by the aggregate assessed value of all properties in their jurisdictions to arrive at that year's tax rate. They move the decimal points around and call it a millage rate to make the figures easier to read. The BOA can adjust your assessed value if you make substantial improvements to your property, thus making it more valuable. They review building permits issued by municipalities to flag these types of improvements and an assessor is sent to your property to check it out. Every property owner has the right to appeal their assessed value at a hearing in Norristown; but get some advice before you do that because sometimes the assessed value can go up!

Getting back to your question- It gets at an issue that is probably on a lot of people's minds. How will the new form-based code affect my property value? It's an understandable concern. Like I wrote earlier I am unaware of any studies. I would also be a little dubious of any studies mainly because while there are many adopted form based codes in the US (over 200+) in communities of all different sizes, I think there are too many other factors at play when determining a property's value. Before discussing those let me be clear about one way that zoning would definitely affect property value - if different uses were proposed in an area than are currently permitted. For example, a change in zoning that allows denser housing such as apartment buildings in a district where they were previously not allowed would make those particular properties much more valuable to investors/developers. We want to be very careful about the differences between the old and new code on this point. We don't want to create tinder boxes of development. The recommendations I've heard so far from the group that meets monthly tells me that the pattern of permitted uses in the new code will be very similar to what is already on the ground, especially in existing residential neighborhoods. You might see changes along Montgomery Ave and areas immediately adjacent to the town center.

My main point I want to make is that when you look at Narberth, the factors that affect property value are its walkable neighborhoods, proximity to jobs, easy access to the train, great school district, and well designed urban form. Indeed communities spend a lot of time trying to recreate what Narberth developed organically. Some of these things are endemic and immutable. Indeed the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. The form based code, however. seeks to protect one of the things that can change over time- Narberth's well designed, walkable urban form. The form based code will deconstruct and codify these elements in ways that the existing code does not. While a form based code can't do anything about the quality of your schools or the job market, it can make sure that as buildings are expanded, replaced, or repurposed that this activity follows a predictable form that is congruent with the municipality's goals and vision.

2) Is there a sample ordinance (for form based codes) or an example of one now in effect?

Yes and yes. The sample ordinance that I am using to guide development of the code is called the Smart Code. There is a lot of good sites and information about the Smart Code online. Try these links to get started: www.smartcodecentral.org, www.formbasedcodes.org

Lansdowne Borough in Delaware county has a code with a lot of form based elements but a conventional framework. The New Jersey examples are closer to what Narberth's will look like - Downtown Haddonfield, Downtown Mt Holly (not yet adopted), North Arlington (ridge road redevelopment plan and form based code), and Dover. There are a few more in Jersey because some state funding in 2008 fueled a lot of these projects.

Sean