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David Bernard, Staff Writer 02/22/2004

The book is lap-sized and weighs more than a pound. It has glossy pages and eye-catching color. On the cover, there’s a photo of houses on a hillside surrounded by a field of daisies. Inside, the photos and text offer suggestions toward the way things could be.

No, it’s not a Martha Stewart book, or a spinoff publication from a TV home decorating show. It’s a land management study by the Chester County Planning Commission.

The "Cluster Subdivision Design Guide," introduced at a recent planning commission meeting, is a sort of coffee-table book about housing developments -- a collection of examples for townships and builders seeking the practical, efficient and attractive use of land in high-density residential projects.

Only in Chester County, right?

"It already seems to have generated quite a bit of interest," said senior planner Carol Stauffer, who compiled the guide along with planner Mark Gallant. "We’ve had calls from people who want to get working with it, municipalities and consultants."

The 191-page book begins by profiling 25 Chester County housing developments through aerial and landscape photographs, maps and short assessments of each development’s benefits.

The second half of the book, a chapter titled "Getting What You Want," points out aspects of preserving open space and natural features and providing vehicular and pedestrian facilities, as seen in the 25 developments. It also includes excerpts from municipal ordinances to show how such elements might be encouraged in residential zoning.

At the meeting where the book was introduced, commission Chairman George Asimos described it as a supplement to Landscapes, the county’s landmark 1996 comprehensive land management plan.

"This is a good way to get developers to see how Landscapes is applicable to real situations," he said. "To show them, ‘This is what we meant when we said this in Landscapes.’"

William Fulton, the commission’s executive director, agreed. "This shows what good design can be, and is, and it’s on the ground in Chester County," he said.

* * * *

Planning professionals will acknowledge that the word "development," and especially the term "cluster development," has developed a bad reputation in some circles.

However, residential development is a valid and necessary use of land, Stauffer noted, and can be done badly or well.

"We felt like we needed to show townships that it could be done," she said. "(The guide) gives real examples of real developments, that you might not have seen from that perspective."

The idea for the book came from Elk. In 2000, Gallant and Stauffer were assisting the rural southern Chester County township in a revision of its zoning ordinances.

The possibility of future high-density residential development was of particular concern to township officials. In order to research the issue, Gallant organized a tour of four nearby developments that planners considered attractively designed.

"We wanted to see the cluster developments, and just how they actually worked," he said.

Said Stauffer, "When you’d drive into them, it would become immediately apparent what was appealing about them."

Gallant and Stauffer contributed an account of their tour to the planning commission’s newsletter. It brought a surprising number of responses from local officials who wanted to know more about well-planned developments. So the two planners set out to highlight some of the county’s best.

For the "Cluster Subdivision Design Guide," they focused on developments that had preserved a total of at least 50 percent of the original open space, and how many of the elements of preservation, natural features and efficient vehicular and pedestrian facilities the finished developments incorporated. From an initial list of 80 developments, Gallant and Stauffer narrowed it down to 25.

The guidelines for writing zoning ordinances were an afterthought, and a labor-intensive one at that, Stauffer said.

"It was a huge amount of work, and it took a lot of research," she said. "But, luckily, we have all of the township zoning ordinances here at the planning commission."

The end result was an attractively designed book with little jargon and lots of visual information that makes the idea of reading about residential developments a colorful proposition -- and easily communicates the planning commission’s doctrines on smart growth and land management.

The commission is in the process of sending copies to each of the county’s municipalities, and is even considering delivering some to an A-list of county developers and consultants. "It’s one of our major publications for this year," Stauffer said.

* * * *

Still, a book about how developments look?

Of course, said planning commission assistant director Wayne Clapp. It’s part of the department’s mission.

"A primary role for Pennsylvania’s county planning commissions is providing information," he said. "What are the kinds of things we’re seeing routinely? That drives us to some degree."

In the case of the "Cluster Subdivision Design Guide," it’s about the details.

"It’s the little things that make or break a community," said Clapp. "That’s what our planners were trying to get across. Because, one of the things we say as planners is, ‘You can’t zone aesthetics.’"

But examples can show the way, said planning commission member Pat Imperato.

"We all know bad clusters. We don’t see the good ones," she said. "There are some horrible developments out there. These are where they did it right."

Plus, people still want to live there. "You don’t see a lot of ‘For Sale’ signs in these particular developments," she said.

İDaily Local News 2004

Reader Opinions: 

Name: Eric Collins                                                                                            

Date: Feb, 22 2004 

"You can't zone aesthetics" is a great quote. Today, it's all about creating a place where people will WANT to live. Most of the friends I grew up with now live in older traditional towns by choice. People are starting to recognize that compact living arrangements sell.

Name: Lem Mason                                                                                            

Date: Feb, 22 2004 

Residential land development most certainly is not valid land use at this stage of the developer assault of Chester County. It has now entered into the realm of shameless profiteering.

So Pat Imperato thinks she knows developments, saying "these are where they did it right".

Can you kill somebody "right" ?

Can you rape somebody "right" ?......Is there a wrong way to wreck a car as well as a "right" way ?

Trashing the environment for the sake of profit is wrong no matter what, even if 'Consultants' and a happy four-color coffee table book might suggest otherwise.


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