Albemarle County is developing its first form-based code, a form of zoning that focuses on regulating the appearance of buildings and streets rather than what is happening inside the buildings.

The first experiment will be in the commercial areas surrounding the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Road.

“We wanted to dip our toe in, start with an area that already has the vision in place calling for the types of elements that can be regulated through a form-based code, and we’re going to see how it goes,” county planner Rachel Falkenstein said at a Monday kickoff event for the code development.

The event was also the first step in turning the community’s vision in the Rio29 Small Area Plan, which the county adopted in December, into law.

Much of the current zoning in the Rio29 area is commercial, which does not lend itself to the pedestrian-oriented mix of residential and commercial buildings envisioned in the small area plan.

Form-based codes often regulate building height, mass, orientation and distance from the street. Some codes call for retail on the first floor, require that parking be placed behind buildings, set a number of units dedicated to affordable housing or dictate where parks will be located.

“At its most elemental level, form-based code is proactive. It is really deciding what is that public realm — the sidewalks, the streets, the public places, the parks, the amenity areas — what do we want that to be and we don’t wait for a developer to hopefully get us there,” said Susan Berry Hill, director of planning for the town of Leesburg and one of the panelists at Monday’s event.

The incentive for developers to invest in such areas is the predictability that the process offers.

Panelist Takis Karantonis, former executive director of a civic organization that promoted the revitalization of Columbia Pike in Arlington County, said that the conventional process of special-use permits had not worked for many developers.

“Every single developer from the most experienced sharks of the real estate market to the most charitable community and affordable housing developers wouldn’t know for 2½ years how what they invested money, work, sweat and capital in would come out from the process,” Karantonis said.

Developers in Arlington now can opt into the streamlined form-based code process, which offers the potential for greater density than the zoning in the area.

According to the Arlington website, 14 projects have been approved through the new process since 2009, and six have completed construction. Little construction, except banks and fast food restaurants in large parking lots, had occurred in the decades before the code was adopted.

“Once that activity started to come in, the purpose changed for all the areas in between that initial boundary, where we wanted to make sure all the demographics and broad ranges of incomes that resided on the corridor could still continue to do that as we develop,” said panelist and Arlington planner Matt Mattauszek.

In 2013, Arlington adopted a code for the neighborhoods outside the commercial nodes that requires developers to build affordable housing within their projects.

Albemarle plans to begin developing a form-based code for Rio29 at later community events. The events will be advertised through the county’s email list for the Places29 Master Plan and on the Rio29 website, albemarle.org/Rio29SAP.