SmartCode Soars in Pass Christian -- and Hits Hiccup in Gulfport

Whether the setting is the recovering coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana or anywhere else for that matter, if your goal is to turn inspiring plans for renewed neighborhoods of walkable, mixed-use urbanism into reality, having a strong form-based code on the books is a necessity. That's because conventional separate-use codes result in sprawl -- malls, office-parks, cul-de-sac subvisions. Form-based codes guide future development to take the form of enduring neighborhoods with homes, storefronts, mixed-use buildings gracefully lining streets and framing parks and squares.

And the past week has been a big one for coding news in Mississippi.

First Pass Christian. This city on the western stretch of Mississippi's coast, near where Katrina's surge hit hardest, passed a major milestone this week when its city council adopted three neighborhood plans covering major parts of the city. With these adoptions, a locally calibrated version of the SmartCode replaces existing codes, effective in 30 days. After the completion of a neighborhood plan covering the rest of the city, Pass Christian will be ready to have a citywide SmartCode.

A strong contingent of Pass Christian residents and leaders forged a quick and lasting relationship with new urbanist planners led by Laura Hall of San Francisco-based Hall Alminana. Hall oversaw the Pass Christian planning team at the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005, ran a follow-up charrette in the Pass shortly thereafter and ongoing work since then. Robert Alminana, Jeff Bounds and Ann Daigle also deserve praise for guiding the city through the challenging process of adopting a new code.

Gulfport has been another coastal leader in planning and coding, as evidenced by last week's DPZ-led city-sponsored charrette in Gulfport. But amid the good news, the Sun-Herald of South Missisisppi ran a story that showed the city hitting a possible snag in its code reform progress, which has been impressive to date. At least some members of the leadership team that smartly commissioned a citywide Smartcode and then valiantly won adoption of new Smartcode maps in a neighborhood or two following neighborhood planning projects -- appeared to waver in their commitment to the new code.

If Gulfport wants to see the amazing images from the Gulfport charrette realized (see this small gallery at, let's hope they keep some teeth in their new codes.

Here's an excerpt from the Sun-Herald:
Leaders confused about zoning


GULFPORT --A California SmartCode expert says the building standards were designed to replace local zoning laws, which is not the way the Warr administration interpreted it.

Mayor Brent Warr favored a plan to use SmartCode in conjunction with the city's zoning laws, giving developers a choice of which rules they want to follow. But two urban planners said last week at Gulfport's 10-day design conference that SmartCode was meant to be a mandatory replacement to local zoning.....


Hall said Gulfport will have to toss out the current zoning laws and implement SmartCode to achieve New Urbanism communities.

The confusion rose from the assertion that adopting SmartCode is an option for each individual community within a city, meaning some areas could have SmartCode while others don't. But once a community adopts it, SmartCode is intended to replace the existing zoning laws.

To make matters worse, Hall said specific language in some of the locally written SmartCode for Gulfport allows the City Council to determine whether the rules should be mandatory.

"The City Council could make it optional if they wanted to, but we would never recommend it," Hall said.

Warr was one of the first Coast leaders to promote SmartCode after Hurricane Katrina. He said he first interpreted it as an option to traditional zoning.

"Really, it's a strange situation for me to be in because it gets adopted as mandatory and I've already told a bunch of people that it would be optional," Warr said.

The City Council adopted SmartCode last year for Mississippi City as a mandatory requirement. But last month, with a strong push from the mayor, the Planning Commission sent a recommendation to the council asking for an amendment that would make the code optional.

Also in January, the Planning Commission recommended SmartCode for the Hansboro community be optional.


SmartCode Soars


Thanks for your post. I think the confusion arose in Gulfport because when most people hear "optional" they think that means they can decide, lot by lot, whether to use the SmartCode or the conventional zoning. SmartCode consultants never advise that; you don't want people applying it piecemeal while others on the same block are using the old code for new construction. That would be a mess. The SmartCode in an infill situation should take into account (and preferably actually map) an area at least the size of a pedestrian shed (about 125 acres). Real neighborhood planning requires that scale for walkability and diversity. While a town might calibrate the code to apply to a smaller area, or just use Article 5 for a couple of downtown blocks, at a certain point it's not worth the aggravation to make the planning staff administer two codes. The Pass Christian strategy is ideal.

Sometimes the SmartCode is available *as an option* to developers, as it has been in the Pass since last April while their mapping was underway. That means they can elect to use Article 3 for New Community Plans on a large parcel, following the requirements of the SC, which include a substantial minimum acreage size. That allows them to develop TND by right instead of needing fifty variances to do it.

There has to be a zoning map - regulating plan - associated with the SmartCode for it to be applicable. When that regulating plan is adopted, the SmartCode Article 5 (Site and Building Plans) then applies to every lot. There are pre-existing conditions grandfathered in, especially on the Gulf where the team wrote some Post-Emergency provisions, but if someone has a cleared lot and ownership has changed, they now have to build to the SmartCode.

Sandy Sorlien


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