Canton Village Districts Form-Based Design: Zoning to facilitate the Community’s Vision for Development

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A multi-disciplinary project team lead by Fuss & O’Neill was hired by the Town of Canton to conduct a week-long charrette focused on commercial areas of State Route 44 and the existing historic mixed-use village center of Collinsville. The project team engaged the public, residents, commercial and residential property owners, business owners, students, town leaders, boards and commission members. A week-long dialogue was facilitated among these stakeholders focused on determining the type, amount, scale, design, layout, and characteristics of development the community would accept. For the historic industrial-era Collinsville village, the project team measured and documented the existing built environment. The dimensions of structures setbacks, aesthetic and architectural details, and uses were derived from the existing conditions in the village and codified into draft regulations.

The proposed zone change was supported by local smart growth advocates (CARE – Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion), the Canton Chamber of Commerce, commercial property owners and developers. Thanks to the dialog and consensus building, they ended up being so popular that once a draft was released, private developers and local stakeholders complained to town leaders that the draft regulations were not being acted on fast enough, so the benefits could be realized!

The town’s largest national retail development, the Shoppes at Farmington Valley, was approached by the public during the charrette to consider adding additional high-density residential development as part of its subsequent build-out. During the public hearing process, the Shoppes supported the regulation that allows high density residential development within its district as a possible future complement to the existing retail development onsite.

Opportunities & Challenges

“The community seems to be routinely subjected to varying degrees of stress pertaining to land use matters. We believe this originates from a lack of consensus on how the town should (or should not) grow and what the town should (or should not) be 10-20 years from now. Despite this lack of consensus, there appears to be a repeated concern that the town is being shaped, defined, and changed by a series of unrelated decisions instead of through the implementation of a well-thought out plan.” 

Concepts that had once been foreign to Canton residents – such as “village districts” and “form-based zoning” – soon became topics of serious discussion, especially as townspeople came to realize that traditional zoning practices were threatening the places they valued most. When developers and residents alike began to clamor for the adoption of a more thoughtful and contemporary approach to development, it was clear that Canton was ready for change.

In developing zoning to facilitate the community’s vision for development, the following objectives were identified:

  • Correct improper zoning (which incentivized tear-downs) in the historic village center of Collinsville
  • Increase development potential in closer proximity to road frontages and to each other (walkable distances)
  • Establish predictable design standards to protect community character
  • Increase the portion of the “tax-positive” grand list by 5%
  • Increase diversity of housing options to meet market demands
  • Pursue infill and redevelopment (with increased densities and development potential) within areas of existing infrastructure
  • Establish a system whereby land use decisions implement a unified vision for the town while reducing the amount of time (and expense) of the regulatory process

Outcome & Impact

Land use approval processes have been greatly streamlined, thanks to clear definitions provided by the new code. With uses allowed as-of-right, developers can compress the old approval process which previously could take up to six months, incurring extensive carrying costs) to a simple office visit. With the new form-based code Canton has changed its development arc from a series of unrelated decisions to a progression of developments that enhance the community by creating attractive, meaningful places throughout town.

The Town is now realizing strong pent-up demand for mixed-use development. An experienced developer, witnessing the community’s forward thinking and seeing the value in the draft code, knowing it had been publicly vetted, chose to move ahead of the town’s process of adoption. The developer harvested sections of the draft to propose a new development on their property, utilizing the draft architectural and development standards – allowing him to be ready to capture existing market potential. He was pre-approved for a mixed-use development spanning two properties including a 92-unit apartment building and 12,000 square feet of commercial space.

In the end, the town’s Form-Based Code – along with an array of related efforts – has placed Canton in a much-improved position to respond thoughtfully to new development challenges and opportunities throughout the community. The Code represents a big step forward in both the preservation of the town’s historic places and its enlightened approach to planning, zoning, and economic development.