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Design Standards in Zoning Ordinances

40 Pages Posted: 24 May 2012  

Daniel R. Mandelker

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: May 23, 2012


This is the fourth chapter in a book, Designing Planned Communities (2010), that reviews the concepts and ideas that go into the design of planned communities, and explores how local governments can encourage and provide for their good design through land-use regulation. Design standards can be included in the planned community ordinance, where they function as one of the standards local governments consider when they review planned community projects. Such standards in planned community ordinances present a different legal problem than design standards in advisory plans, guidelines, and manuals. Design standards in ordinances are regulatory, and compliance with these standards is a condition to project approval. A constitutional problem may arise, however, if the design standards contain qualitative terms such as “harmonious,” “creative,” or “innovative,” which courts may find unconstitutionally vague.

There is no way around the constitutionality problem if only words are used to set forth a standard because all descriptive words are ambiguous and indeterminate. There is no language “fix” that can solve this problem. This chapter provides examples of design standards that use indeterminate terms that may make the standards vulnerable to constitutional objection. Selecting these standards for discussion was done intentionally, partly because plans, guidelines, and manuals can help give meaning to indeterminate standards, and partly because the constitutional objections are not as serious as many imagine. At the same time, local governments may not opt out of this problem by declining to have any standards for planned communities. A review without standards of planned community projects is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.

The entire book can be downloaded by going to the author's profile on Washington University Law School's website.

Keywords: planned communities, design, zoning, land use, local government, constitutionality of design standards

Suggested Citation

Mandelker, Daniel R., Design Standards in Zoning Ordinances (May 23, 2012). Designing Planned Communities (2010); Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-05-06. Available at SSRN:

Daniel R. Mandelker (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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