I’d be interested in knowing the rationale behind minimum setbacks. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea when it became common practice, and I never thought much about it until I was on the Planning Board and was exposed to alternatives. Where did the idea of keeping buildings away from roads come from, originally?
Minimum setbacks were created as the design standard for suburbs. Quiet streets with nice lawns, plenty of space between neighbors. It works nicely on the part of Main Street above the bus station where older private homes were turned into offices for doctors and lawyers. It keeps them from turning the lawns into parking lots and keeps things looking residential. It gets tricky when businesses intrude into those residential zones (like the large office building (Computer Metropolis), Convenient Deli plaza or the new Main Course).
The downtown section of the village works because buildings were built in the old days right to the sidewalk with zero sidelots. Yet there is nothing in the code that requires or even allows that today.
One of the simplest ways to look at the history of zoning is to notice when a particular area was built. Downtown New Paltz was designed and built before the mass production of cars. When people get form place to place by foot, horse, or carriage, everything is designed to suit the scale of human beings. In postwar America, after mass transit had been largely replaced by cars (a la “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) new development began to be built to the scale of, and to suit the convenience of, cars. Everything was shoved apart, and the sprawl that resulted infected the entire country.
The worst part of all this is that David is right — the most beautiful places, the towns and cities that people flock to precisely because of that human-scale comfortable type of development are almost universally illegal. New Paltz, Boston, Savannah, al the old places could not be built today. God forbid there was a catastrophe in downtown New Paltz (for instance the Thesis fire years ago that threatened to burn down a large chunk of downtown) – you couldn’t rebuild downtown the way it is now. You’d have to have setbacks and sidelots.