Code drafting guidelines

When working on zoning and development code updates, creating your own punch list helps organize the code so users can easily retrieve the information they need.

by Scot Siegel, AICP, LEED AP, Lake Oswego, Oregon

I have led zoning and development code updates for more than 60 cities and counties in seven Western states, and have prepared state model ordinances, handbooks, and guidelines for jurisdictions large and small. I have also prepared codes implementing specific area plans, including downtowns, corridors, and new neighborhoods. In 23 years of assisting communities with regulatory assessments and rewrites, I have found that some issues continually resurface, and they often have more to do with the writer’s craft than with advances in planning.

In general, a code should be organized so that users can easily retrieve the information they need. It should set forth allowable uses, development standards, and administrative procedures, among other requirements, consistent with applicable law and local policy. The code must fit the community and be enforceable. The purpose, intent, and applicability (function) of each chapter or major section should be clear. 

The following tips, or code drafting guidelines, are not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather a starting point for creating your own punch list. I often refer to a list like this when assessing an existing ordinance or drafting new code.

24 guidelines

  1. Implement policy: Make the code consistent with adopted policy and accepted practices or precedent (unwritten policy); or propose necessary policy changes.
  2. Highlight changes: Highlight any changes in policy, explaining trade-offs such as the likelihood that a change will render some uses non-conforming. Be sure to describe why the change is recommended and other options considered, including public input.
  3. Have legal sufficiency: The code must conform to the law, but the law usually does not provide a reliable roadmap for drafting code. Do your best to capture the letter and intent of the law. 
  4. Be easy-to-navigate: The code structure—the outline of articles, chapters, sections, and subsections—should be logical. The code should be intuitive in its organization and internally consistent, with a helpful numbering scheme (articles, chapter, sections, subsections) and cross-references.
  5. Use consistent section numbering: If possible, use consistent section numbering for similar headings that repeat from chapter to chapter—e.g., purpose, applicability, standards, and exceptions.
  6. Lay it out like a book: The code should function like a small book, not a collage of ordinances. Each page should have a crisp layout with text that is not too dense, using ample white space. Avoid using too many lists, and make sure lists are not too long. The table of contents should be simple, yet sufficient. Page numbers, headers, footers, labels, and captions should be placed well, with headers or footers referencing the articles of the code in which they appear. The use of subsections should be limited to the extent practical (avoid “nesting” of code provisions).
  7. Check grammar and punctuation: Use correct grammar. Use colons, semi-colons, and commas correctly: like this, and this; or this.
  8. Use etc.  and i.e. correctly: Et cetera (etc.) means “and so forth.” Use it only when there is no question of what’s being omitted, or when it’s not necessary to include every item in a long list. Remember, id est (i.e.,) means “that is,” which is different than etc.
  9. Use that and which correctly:  Remember that a comma is often required after which. That witch rides a red broom, which she got from her mother who was also a witch. 
  10. Use tables: Tables help consolidate related standards and avoid repetitive text.
  11. Use consistent graphic style: Graphics and text should support one another. Use a consistent graphic style where possible, using model but showing different views of it to illustrate different standards can make the code easier to understand. All graphics should be legible.
  12. Consolidate definitions: Definitions should be consolidated in one chapter or section. The Definitions chapter should be limited to definitions (no standards or guidelines).
  13. Review code for enforceability: Make sure the code is enforceable from a legal, administrative, and political perspective.
  14. Apply consistent writing style and syntax: For example, if you start out using numerals for all numbers 10 and over, or if all numerical standards are presented both as numerals and text, e.g., ten (10), be consistent throughout. This also goes for labels, units of measurement, tables, graphics, cross-references, etc.
  15. Balance certainty and flexibility: This will be different for each community, and it may shift over time. For example, some local boards are comfortable with discretionary design review guidelines, while others lean toward clear and objective standards.
  16. Avoid jargon: Professionals do not hide behind big words. Use plain English.
  17. Shoot straight: Use your active voice. Keep the sentence structure simple, avoiding sections that are too long or contain multiple clauses.
  18. Distinguish between requirements and guidelines: Think of a slide rule: one is a rule, and the other will let you slide; but both are there to guide applicants toward compliance or consistency with adopted policy.
  19. Do not over-write the regulations: Usually, less is more.
  20. Customize the code to fit the situation: Solve a problem that the community, through a public process, has identified. (Avoid cut-and-paste solutions.)
  21. Be ambidextrous: Consider using a combination of guidelines, incentives, performance standards, exceptions, and adjustments, as appropriate, to add flexibility and encourage context-driven design. 
  22. Offer downloadable and searchable files: Provide a table of contents linked to chapters. List sections at the head of each chapter or article.
  23. Make the code adaptable: Leave room for new chapters and sections. Remember, the code is a living document.
  24. Proofread often: Have a second set of eyes read every word, front-to-back and back-to-front.

Scot Siegel is a principal with Siegel Planning Services, LLC, based in Lake Oswego, Oregon. He serves on the board of Western Planning Resources, Inc. More information about his work is available at

Published in the February/March 2012 The Western Planner

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