Form-Based Codes Benefits and Best Practices in Delaware

What is a Form-Based Code (FBC)?

Standard zoning has led to separation of uses, segregation of neighborhoods by income, and automobile dependency. FBCs allow for a greater integration of uses, multi-modal transportation, and economic benefits, streamlined development, and community standards. If conventional zoning codes are a technical manual, then form-based codes are a picture book. Watch the video below to learn the fundamentals, definition, purpose, and goals of FBCs.

What are the elements of Form-Based Codes?

Best practices in Delaware

New Castle County

In 2009, New Castle County implemented a form-based code as an innovative way of addressing community design that achieves connected, vibrant, and walkable places that allow for a mix of uses. New Castle County approved a Hamlets & Villages chapter within its existing Unified Development Code (UDC), to empower the development of high-quality compact, mixed-use development. New Castle County’s “Smart Code legislation” is designed to preserve open space and farmland, provide of a variety of transportation choices, allow for mixed uses, support a range of housing opportunities and choices, create walkable neighborhoods, foster distinctive and attractive communities for a strong sense of place, promote predictable, fair, and cost-effective development decisions, direct development toward existing communities, and provide compact building and efficient infrastructure design.

Four unincorporated communities within New Castle County—Claymont, Hockessin Village, Centreville Village, and North St. Georges—have successfully undertaken the hometown overlay process by formulating a Redevelopment Plan and Design Guidelines. Each community has a design review advisory committee that hears applications from those who are developing or redeveloping property within the overlay area. Adopted as an advisory supplement to the UDC, “Guiding Principles” were established for building design, site design and amenities to encourage sustainable development.

Whitehall Neighborhood Development

The villages within the Town of Whitehall are enabled by right under the New Castle County’s Hamlets & Villages chapter within its UDC. Credit: EDiS Company

Whitehall is a traditional neighborhood development in New Castle County, south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal that was inspired by tree-lined walkable communities, which have been developed on a “human scale” with mix of homes, shops, businesses, restaurants, event spaces, parks, and open space areas.

Whitehall consists of a series of clustered and connected villages, which are enabled by right under the Hamlets & Villages chapter within New Castle County’s UDC. A multi-disciplinary planning and design team crafted an Architectural Pattern Book in June 2013. It details the development’s master plan and regulating plan that shows the transect zones, civic zones, form and location of open spaces, thoroughfare layout, and special requirements of areas subject to FBC regulations. The Pattern Book also provides illustrations that depict general architectural standards and style-specific architectural standards.


Darley Green is a mixed-use development community that utilizes the best practices of traditional neighborhood design and new-urbanist principles. It is one of Delaware’s largest master-planned communities. Credit: Montchanin Builders.

The 2002 New Castle County Comprehensive Development Plan Update identified the need for redevelopment of existing properties, including the unincorporated community of Claymont. A community visioning process built consensus on the need for a pedestrian-oriented town center characterized by a vibrant commercial district and a more attractive and walkable Philadelphia Pike. The 2004 Claymont Community Redevelopment Plan and accompanying Manual of Design Guidelines provided the standards for a “neo-traditional” pattern of development with walkable, mixed-used development that is typical of traditional “towns.” New Castle County’s adoption of FBCs provided a novel approach to land-use regulation that made possible the redevelopment of the former Brookview Apartments complex site.

In addition, a Philadelphia Pike “Road Diet” provided safety enhancements and beautification of the historic road connecting Wilmington to Philadelphia. The $40 million Claymont Train Station Improvement Project will bring together all of the components of a transit-oriented community together and be integrated with the redevelopment of the former industrial site into a modern mixed-use campus featuring office, commercial, and light industrial uses.

City of Wilmington

Redevelopment along the 400 block of Wilmington’s North Market Street conforms to historic preservation regulations, standards, design guidelines, and zoning rules. Credit: Delaware State Housing Authority

While local governments often adopt form-based codes to build Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) (also called “New Urbanism” and “Neo-Traditional Neighborhood Design”), many jurisdictions create historic overlay zones to protect historic areas, structures, and community character. Since 1975, twelve City Historic Districts (CHD) in the City of Wilmington have been designated as overlay zoning districts to recognize and protect outstanding resources of historical, architectural, or archaeological significance.

While the City does not have form-based codes, it has adopted design guidelines based on the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The Standards, and related design Guidelines, promote historic preservation best practices to protect irreplaceable cultural resources, restore existing properties, and ensure that new construction conforms to the historic character of the district. Several of the CHDs, including Market Street, Quaker Hill, and Baynard Boulevard have established their own published guidelines, the remainder function with unpublished equivalents based on the Standards. Wilmington’s Design Review and Preservation Commission is charged with reviewing the effects of certain of actions (i.e., exterior building alterations, demolitions, new construction, fencing, landscape topographic changes) on historic architecture.

Town of Smyrna

The demolition and reconstruction of the former Dairy Sweet building (pictured in the background) will have many of the elements detailed in the South Corridor Zoning (SCZ) district and North Corridor Zone (NCZ) district subsections of Town of Smyrna’s zoning code.

Town of Smyrna - Architectural design standards
Town of Smyrna - Design standards for mixed-use development

Dating back to Colonial times, the Town of Smyrna lost its quaint feel following construction of the high-speed DuPont Highway. A Smyrna U.S. Route 13 Corridor Market study conducted in 2012 recommended various aesthetic changes including incorporating street trees, landscaping, decorative lighting, and transportation improvements along the corridor. A planning design “charrette,” or public visioning process, was held in 2012 to envision future land-use scenarios to transform the corridor into a more pedestrian-, bicycle-, and business-friendly environment, attract investment in the historic downtown, and reestablish the town’s sense of place.

Outcomes included publication of a Smyrna U.S. Route 13 Corridor Plan and Design book and a 2014 amendment to section 5, District Regulations within the Town’s zoning code. The “South Corridor Zoning” (SCZ) district and North Corridor Zone (NCZ) district, which provide regulations and graphic design standards, were established as zoning code subsections to institute form-based codes. The intent is to enhance both the function and appearance of the corridor through the implementation of strategies outlined in both the 2012 Town of Smyrna Comprehensive Plan and the Smyrna U.S. 13 Corridor Plan and Design Book.

Both FBCs and the Town’s 2016 designation as a Downtown Development District have positioned the town for new economic growth that protects and preserves cherished cultural, artistic, historic, and entertainment venues and structures.

Eden Hill, Dover

Eden Hill Farm residential development. Credit: Becker Morgan Group.

Eden Hill is a historic farm property in Dover dating back to Colonial times. When farming ceased, the property was identified for a West Dover Connector road alignment. Although it was eyed for conversion to an industrial-manufacturing park, property owners and Dover residents expressed interest in high-quality residential and mixed-use development.

Eden Hill fosters a pedestrian-friendly, neo-traditional residential neighborhood and mixed-use development that reflects the historic and architectural character of the City of Dover.

During the City of Dover’s 2003 comprehensive plan update process, the public was engaged in drafting and adopting standards for a traditional neighborhood development (TND) zoning district. In 2004, a Development Pattern Book was created that included Master Plans, narrative Design Standards, and material selections for streetscaping, plantings, site lighting, site furnishings, pedestrian circulation, open spaces and parks. The Master Plan for preserved historic areas, protected scenic open space, and established a right-of-way for the West Dover Connector by-pass road, which began construction in 2015. The resulting mixed-use and residential development were designed based on the architectural “pattern book” described in the master plan and incorporated into the City’s TND zoning district regulations.

For a quick overview, check out IPA’s A Delaware Guide to Form-Based Codes. For more in-depth information, download IPA’s Form-Based Codes: A Primer for Delaware Municipalities.