Chapter 12 | Controlling the Development of Land


Zoning establishes the type and intensity of use or uses allowed on a particular piece of land. Subdivision and site plan regulations address the quality of development by specifying standards for: street layout and connectivity; pedestrian and bicycle facilities; private streets; stormwater facilities; open space and green infrastructure (covered in more depth in Chapter 16); and other public facilities. The chapter describes the subdivision review process and introduces methods of paying for the public facilities that serve new developments – including the sometimes controversial topic of exactions. The chapter also discusses how local governments regulate the quality of development of individual sites, including regulations for:  off-street parking; areas for truck loading and unloading and “stacking” areas for drive-through lanes; landscaping requirements for parking lots and other site areas; site lighting standards; and regulations for billboards and other signs.

Weblinks from Chapter

International Dark-Sky Association provides information on the dark-sky movement in general, including detailed recommendations for low-impact site lighting.


  1. Find an older residential neighborhood with a grid development pattern near downtown in your own community; if your community has fewer than 25,000 people, it may be more meaningful to do this exercise in a larger community nearby. Is traffic evenly balanced over the grid in this area, or are some streets busier than others? Were those streets designed adequately to handle today’s traffic load? Do you think a hierarchical street system might have served this area better? Why or why not?
  2. Drive down an older, narrow, residential street with cars parked along it; drive at what feels like a safe speed and then look down at the speedometer to see how fast you are going. Now do the same exercise in a new residential area with wide streets. In which location were you going faster? Does that tell you anything about street design? About traffic calming?
  3. Find a cul-de-sac in a new part of town, if there is one. Try to be there at rush hour, about eight in the morning or five in the afternoon—or whenever your local peak hour is. Watch the traffic flow for thirty minutes. Look at the parking along the street. Watch for heavy trucks. Is the street too wide? Too narrow? Just right?
  4. Are there neighborhoods where you particularly like to walk or ride your bike? What makes them attractive for that? Do they have a grid street system or a hierarchical one? Are the sidewalks next to the street or set away from them? How wide are the streets? How fast do cars drive?
  5. What kind of stormwater system does your community have in the older areas? In the newer ones? If you do not know, drive around and look—it should not take you long to figure it out. Do you find one of them more aesthetically appealing than the other? Which one? Why?
  6. Does your community have a plan for pedestrian and bicycle circulation?  First, examine what has been built. Are there good connections between developments, or are there simply sidewalks along some streets without logical connections. Is it possible to walk from a residence in a typical neighborhood to the nearest school or shopping area?  Next, check on-line or go to the planning office and find out if there is a plan. If there is such a plan, how is the community doing in implementing it?
  7. Is there a green network in your community?  If not, are there parts of the community where some elements of a green network have been preserved?  Does the community plan call for future preservation of a green network.

Class Discussion Exercise

  1. Divide the class into two teams. One group will be advocates for the grid pattern of development; the other will be advocates for a hierarchical street system. After each group spends some time looking at developments of each type and reading more background on each type, have a debate. Invite members of the local planning commission or other interested citizens to serve as a jury. Ask the jury to develop a brief policy statement on the grid vs. hierarchy issue, allowing them to select any combination of solutions that they may wish.


Subdivision Ordinances

Subdivision ordinances can usually be found in the same places as zoning ordinances; see “supplemental resources” section of website under Chapter 11.

Design Standards

Sometimes the design standards for subdivisions are very general, and they are simply included in the subdivision ordinance. Other communities have much more detailed design standards, and those should be available in a “Design Standards Manual” or “Subdivision Design Manual” or similar document. Sometimes individual cross-sections for streets or details for other improvements are available on the local government website as individual documents.

Warning:  Detailed design standards can be hard to find. A particular local government may have references to a design manual in its subdivision ordinance, but the “manual” may consist of individual sheets of paper or looseleaf notebooks maintained by different staff members; for example, one person may have design specifications for stormwater facilities and someone else may have the detailed requirements for street intersections. Good planning standards and legal requirements in most states indicate that, if a local government relies on a design manual, that manual should exist as a formal, publicly available document. This warning is a statement about reality, not about ideal practice.

Site Plan Standards

A few communities have separate “site planning” ordinances or “site planning” articles in their zoning ordinances; in a few communities, site design standards for individual sites are scattered through the subdivision ordinance. In most communities, however, the standards by which a site plan is reviewed are found in separate sections of the local zoning ordinance. Common subheadings for those sections include:

  • Parking and loading
  • Stormwater (may also be called “drainage”).
  • Landscaping
  • Site lighting
  • Fences
  • Signs
  • Required buffers

Site plan review is also the process used to ensure that a proposed development conforms with such basis zoning requirements as minimum lot size and yard and setback requirements; those standards are typically included under the individual district sections or chapters of the zoning ordinance – for example, the yard and setback requirements for the R-1 district will be found in a more general section on the R-1 district or in a related table.

Some Specific Examples

  • Farmington Hills, Michigan, makes all of its design guidelines available on-line; they include standards for tree surveys, stormwater management, parking lot planting, other landscaping and other important site planning issues.
  • Anne Arundel County, Maryland, provides its landscaping design manual on-line.
  • For landscaping standards for a very different community, see the Landscape Manual for Fairbanks, Alaska.
  • Westminster, Colorado, a Denver suburb with a variety of land uses and development types, provides detailed site development standards, including provisions dealing with soil erosion.
  • The City of Scottsdale, Arizona, provides detailed standards and guidelines for site lighting on its website. Arizona communities were among the first to face the issues of excessive site lighting, because light pollution from urban areas can interfere with several important astronomic observatories in the state.
  • Santa Rosa, California, has a detailed and well-illustrated design manual for streets and roads.
  • Fort Worth, Texas, like many larger cities, provides a very detailed set of street standards, with different standards for many different classifications of streets. For the complete table of contents, with links to other subdivision design standards for the city, go to the site.
  • Modern parking standards should include provisions for bicycle parking; for an example, see Louisville, Kentucky’s Land Development Code. Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a large portion of the population travels by bicycle and/or transit, provides an excellent, illustrated handbook on bicycle parking standards.
  • San Jose, California, provides a user-friendly explanation of local stormwater management standards as they apply to new construction and new development.

Supplemental Resources

  • In response to complaints from builders that they faced significantly different for sidewalks, streets and other public improvements, the New Jersey legislature adopted a law requiring that the state publish – and that local governments follow – consistent standards for subdivision and site plan standards for residential development. The state makes those standards available on-line.
  • Pennsylvania has also published Pennsylvania Standards for Residential Site Development; although the full document is not available on-line, background information, samples, and a slide show about it are available on the web.
  • The State of Wisconsin publishes a Platting Manual. Although it includes more detail than the average user of the book will need, it is user-friendly and allows a web visitor to select particular sections that are of interest.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has published a helpful guidebook, Using Smart Growth Techniques as Stormwater Best Management Practices
  • The State of Maryland has published a detailed stormwater design manual.
  • Parking is a major consumer of land in urban areas. The Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council provides a website with links to a number of contemporary resources on flexible parking standards. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a valuable handbook on the subject, Parking Spaces/Community Places: Finding the Balance through Smart Growth Solutions; it is available for free download.
  • The Victoria (Canada) Transport Policy Institute provides an excellent, illustrated web guide to bicycle parking.

Common Search Terms

Use these terms in search engines to find additional examples and other resources:

Subdivision regulation, subdivision ordinance, subdivision plat, plat, public facilities design, site design, site lighting, sign ordinance, sign regulation, landscape standards, parking standards, parking design