St. Louis County planners want to change the county's zoning codes to encourage people to live closer together to save energy and the environment.

The current codes reflect society's reliance on the automobile and people's preference for stand-alone houses, one to a lot.

That's not the future of housing, experts say.

The county's current codes cover the unincorporated area, the home of about a third of the county's residents. They now favor separating commerce from residential and separating single-family from multifamily housing.

The new codes would encourage communities in which apartments, condos, houses, offices, stores and restaurants mix together.

And the new codes would promote a shift away from the automobile. For instance, new codes might reduce the number of parking spaces a developer must provide.

John King, an attorney who for decades has represented developers on zoning matters, said the county effort is a necessity.

"There is a need for density to make sure that costs don't go out of sight. People can't afford to buy a house or live in a house," he said.

"Developers will welcome this," King said.

With the unincorporated part of the county largely built up, the changes would have more effect on redevelopment of older, established areas. And they may influence municipalities, which set their own codes.

The county planners have interviewed four consulting companies that are finalists for the code revision project. A winner is expected to be selected soon.

The county did not identify the companies. About $150,000 from an $8.4 million federal stimulus grant to the county will pay for the work, said Gail Choate, a county planning official.

The planners hope the County Council ultimately would approve changes in the zoning code no later than a year and a half from now.

The changes would encourage "places where people can work, live, play and walk and use public transportation," said Jen Samson, the county's project manager for the effort.

Choate noted that some older areas of the county, such as in Affton and Lemay, mix commercial with residential, with houses and stores close together.

"But you still need a car to get to the stores" on such roads as Gravois Road in Affton, she said.

Among the issues the consultants and planners would consider are:

• Transit-oriented development, where new development or redevelopment would be in easy walking distance to a transit hub. The county has one MetroLink station in the unincorporated area — North Hanley — and one partly so — the University City-Big Bend station that has an entrance on the Washington University Danforth campus, which is in the unincorporated area. "Transit-oriented development doesn't just have to be at MetroLink stops, it could be at bus hubs," Choate said.

• Other mixed-use developments where stores or offices could be on the street level with apartments above them.

• High-density areas where tall apartment, condominium or office buildings could be next to wide sidewalks with enough room for outdoor cafes.

• Codes that could provide another way for developers to cluster larger buildings. Developers and officials would pay more attention to the public space around a project's buildings.

• Regulations to encourage and control such energy efficiency devices as solar panels on roofs or wind turbines.

• Designs that would reduce the impact of storm water.

King, the zoning attorney, said higher density would reduce developer costs of installing utilities, such as water and sewer lines and wiring for cable television.

A tight-knit project also would help developers meet new storm-water regulations, he said.

King agreed that county's approach would encourage redevelopment of older areas.

"There may be some trauma" as residents near proposals for denser development react to change, he predicted. "People will get used to density," he said. "The market is different than it was five or 10 years ago" and, he said, it won't go back to what it was.

Lyzel Krebs, staff vice president for governmental affairs of the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri, said her organization could not comment in detail until it sees more specifics. Homebuilders, she said, want to maintain "a good viable community" that includes a proper balance with the environment.

In addition to advice about the county zoning code, planners want consultants to provide ideas for the municipalities in the county, Choate said.

"We would like to help the municipalities who are interested in doing something, but do not have the resources," she said.

The planners want developers, builders, design professionals, municipal officials and advocates for public transit, bicyclists, open space and compact development to participate in preparing changes, Choate said. The staffs of the county departments of highways and traffic and public works should be involved, she said.

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