Design Review Regulations

IN BRIEF

Vermont’s unique character is defined by many elements, including the contrast between the built and natural environments, the human scale of our downtowns, villages and neighborhoods, and our architectural heritage.  As our communities grow, especially those that encourage smart growth involving high densities and compact settlement patterns, careful attention to building design is an important means of building public support and ensuring that new development enhances community character.  An efficient design review process, with clear design standards, is an effective way to achieve that.

Nearly every community that has adopted zoning bylaws has imposed a certain degree of design review over new development. Standards related to building height, setbacks and coverage all affect the design of new buildings. Most Vermont communities also require review of site plans, which involve the placement of buildings on lots and their relationship to parking, landscaping and public streets. Most also subject the development of new buildings to conditional use review, which includes consideration of host the use will impact the character of the area in which it is located.

Without clear standards that focus on specific design concerns, however, communities can end up with new buildings that don’t relate well to their surroundings. Design review districts are an effective way to ensure that new development, and redevelopment of existing buildings, contributes to the character of the community. In Vermont, state statutes (§4414(1)(E) authorizes communities to designate design review districts for “any area containing structures of historical, architectural, or cultural merit, and other areas in which there is a concentration of community interest and participation such as a central business district, civic center, or a similar grouping or focus of activities. These areas may include townscape areas that resemble in important aspects the earliest permanent settlements, including a concentrated urban settlement with striking vistas, views extending across open fields and up to the forest edge, a central focal point and town green, and buildings of high architectural quality, including styles of the early 19th century.”

Photo: Lee Krohn

The most common type of design review district in Vermont encompasses downtowns, village centers and historic neighborhoods – areas where new building design should be harmonious with a well established building pattern.  Some communities have chosen to designate areas defined by scenic landscapes, such as agricultural areas or wooded hillsides and ridgelines, where it is important that new development should settle into the landscape with minimal disturbance.

Regardless of the context or purpose of the district, common elements of design review include:

  • a description of the district, in the form of “a report describing the particular planning and design problems of the proposed district and setting forth a design plan for the areas which shall include recommended planning and design criteria to guide future development” (§4414(1)(E);
  • a review process, often involving an advisory committee to assist the review board with the review of applications and interpretation of the standards; and
  • clear design standards, often supported by design guidelines that explain or illustrate the design concepts that the standards are intended to achieve.

Design review standards have been used to promote compatible architecture and adherence to good urban design principles in downtowns, village centers, established neighborhoods and hamlets. Design review has also been applied to scenic landscapes, including areas defined by the relationship of buildings to farm and forest land, and where scenic vistas have been identified as an important community resource.

Related Issues

Related Case Studies

Resources

Vermont Land Use Planning Implementation Manual: Design Review.  This provides more detailed information on design review.
Vermont Planning StatutesThis link provides the legal framework for subdivision regulations as referenced in the Vermont Planning Statutes.