OBJECTIVE DESIGN STANDARDS WITH STREAMLINED PERMIT PROCESSES are FORM-BASED CODES
California’s long standing “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) culture has exacerbated higher housing costs and homelessness. Over the past 50 years, conventional zoning ordinances and hearing processes have conspired to support NIMBY intentions to stop new housing from being built anywhere near their homes. But six years ago, state legislators began passing a series of laws to address our state’s acute housing crisis.
These bills are removing local policy and regulatory impediments to meet housing needs regionally and city-by-city via “Objective Design Standards with Streamlined Permit Processing.” The intent is to build more affordable and attainable housing along transit and strip commercial corridors ripe for redevelopment. And the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has been championing these two important issues for over 30 years.
Beginning with the Charter for the New Urbanism, written in 1991 at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley when Bay Area architects, Peter Calthorpe, Judy and Michael Corbett, Pasadena architects Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, with Andres Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk and Peter Katz, CNU is aligned with the state’s goals by emphatically making the following statements:
We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car.
- Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.
- Transit corridors, when properly planned and coordinated, can help organize metropolitan structure and revitalize urban centers. In contrast, highway corridors should not displace investment from existing centers.
- Appropriate building densities and land uses should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.
Since 2017, CNU and California legislators agree that many of the barriers to building new urban housing are found in outdated zoning codes. California is moving towards reforming zoning to take on the challenges of “… the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built-heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge (from CNU’s 1991 Charter’s preamble).”
Zoning reform has already been in process with CNU’s zoning tools; Form-Based, Place-Based, and/or Context-Sensitive Codes. Form-based codes (FBC) are land development regulations that enable more predictable built outcomes more quickly with explicit design standards that define a street and building’s physical form rather than just private buildings built via conventional zoning’s separation of uses. Both FBCs and the state’s mandated Objective Design Standards with Streamlined Permit Processing (ODS) are regulations presented in clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals to clearly state what is allowed without relying on the discretion of a city staff member and hearing bodies.
In 2003, Andres Duany and CNU-California Chapter members provided research that shaped Government Code section 65302.4, that states “permits form-based codes in general plans, stating that “[t]he text and diagrams in the land use element that address the location and extent of land uses, and the zoning ordinances that implement these provisions, may also express community intentions regarding urban form and design. These expressions may differentiate neighborhoods, districts, and corridors, provide for a mixture of land uses and housing types within each, and provide specific measures for regulating relationships between buildings, and between buildings and outdoor public areas, including streets.” This tool achieves certainty over the physical outcome of land use and development decisions while enhancing flexibility to create more infill or infrastructure as needed. Cities in California that have used form-based codes, such as Ventura, Benicia, and Petaluma, provide examples of this practice.”
The state’s ODS language first appeared in SB 35 in 2017, and then in the Housing Accountability Act. California cities are now required to streamline new development reviews using ODS. FBCs and ODS are regulatory, not advisory, and should not be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy. These regulatory standards are the now the only basis cities must deny eligible by-right housing and mixed-use projects.
The following series of state laws require ODS:
SB 2 Building Homes and Jobs Act (2017) provides technical assistance to help cities and counties prepare, adopt, and implement streamlined permit processes housing projects using Objective Design Standards (ODS). The California Department of Housing and Community Development, in coordination with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, developed this ODS toolkit to explain how these are more predictable and easier to interpret for all stakeholders, including decision makers, staff, applicants, and members of the public.
SB 35 Affordable Housing Streamlined Approval Process (2017) creates an opt-in program for developers that allows a streamlined ministerial approval process for developments in localities that have not yet made sufficient progress toward meeting their regional housing need allocation (RHNA). Eligible developments must include a specified level of affordability; be on an infill site; comply with existing residential and mixed-use general plan or zoning provisions; and comply with other requirements such as, locational and demolition restrictions. The streamlined, ministerial entitlement process relies on objective design standards.
SB 330 Housing Crisis Act (2019) require a housing development project to comply with objective, quantifiable, written development standards, conditions, and policies appropriate to, and consistent with, meeting the jurisdiction’s RHNA share.
SB 9 Housing Development (2021) requires ministerial approval of a housing development of no more than two units in a single-family zone (duplex), the subdivision of a parcel zoned for residential use into two parcels (lot split), or both. Authorizes a city or county to impose objective zoning, subdivision, and design review standards.
AB 2668 Planning and Zoning (2022) further amend SB 35 by removing perceived ambiguities in the law regarding the application process and the local review process. And when a local government determines
that a development submitted pursuant to this section is consistent with its objective planning standards, it must approve the development.
SB 6 and AB 2011 (2022) rezones commercial areas on major boulevards for three-to-six story residential development that includes labor standards and health care requirements in a bid to improve conditions for construction workers and will go into effect July 1, 2023, until January 1, 2033. These require cities to enable a by-right, streamlined, ministerial approval process for multifamily housing with Affordable Housing developments located on commercial corridors using specified site criteria, objective design standards, and prevailing wage labor standards.
In December, 2022, the Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America announced that Bay Area design firm, Opticos, winner of its 16th annual FBCI Form-Based Code Award for their Objective Design and Development Standards in Marin County, California. The award jury selected these Objective Design Standards as a model form-based code. Marin County’s ODS/FBC implements Marin County’s Countywide Plan vision through the application of zones and standards that reflect a context-specific approach based on local development patterns.
Cities are responding to ODS requirements in several ways. Too many are simply ignoring the requirement and are awaiting future state enforcement, who are focused on RHNA conformance today. Others are taking their current subjective standards and strike out subjective language and hope for the best, rather than plan for expected outcomes. And others are using dedicated state funds to hire experienced California new urbanists to reform local zoning via FBC models, such as Marin County, Santa Barbara, Los Altos, and Carlsbad.
This ODS/FBC approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and suburban measurements (e.g., Floor Area Ratios, dwellings per acre, setbacks, and parking ratios), followed by a series of discretionary review permit processes, which historically has not provided enough housing and led to the state legislator’s intervention. In short, FBCs and ODS explicit standards allow for faster permitting processes that are better regulatory tools to allow for more housing on infill development-ready corridors. Find additional Objective Design Standards and Form-Based Code information and professionals here, here, and here. And let’s continue to reform California’s regulations to build more places that are transit-supported, walkable, sustainable, and enjoyable for everyone.
Chairman, CNU-California Chapter
San Diego, California