New Canaan's red brick storefronts, white-shuttered eateries and blooming sidewalk planters contribute to its reputation as one of the state's most idyllic country townships.

To maintain and enhance the Village District's small-town charm and character, a Planning and Zoning Commission sub-committee has drafted a design manual meant to guide business owners, builders and architects in modeling sites and buildings.

At a Town Council meeting last Tuesday night, Town Planner Steve Kleppin explained, "We don't want to make it so constricting that we just get the same building block after block; we want to keep some imagination and ingenuity in the design. That's the intent."

Town Attorney Chris Jarboe said the guidelines are just that -- guidelines to help preserve an aesthetic. Called the Town of New Canaan Village District Design Guidelines, its draft form spans 24 pages, accented with photographic and descriptive evidence of the kind of architectural character town officials hope to preserve. Examples of qualities manual drafters describe as favorable in downtown buildings include low height, red brick facades, permeable pavement, native plantings and small outdoor seating areas to compliment pedestrian traffic.

"It's not something that imposes any mandatory design criteria," he said. "It allows flexibility for somebody to come in with a new design. We would like them to consider the particular street they're on and how their idea fits with the neighborhood and the Village District as a whole, but not to prohibit any creativity.

"If we had mandatory guidelines for residential zones 50 years ago, we probably never would have gotten the modern [architecture]. This has the benefit of being flexible without imposing too many restrictions."

Kleppin said the proposed manual is a reaction to a discovered void in the town's resources.

"[The town] has the ability to control architecture and aesthetics, but the problem is, the town doesn't have anything to point to, to say, `Well, you're not keeping with the Village District,'" he said. "So it would be us denying an application based on that which we don't have."

Kleppin offered this example: "In the first rendition of [TD Bank's design], they came in with a pretty funky looking design. Basically, we called their bluff on that because they wanted it done and opened by [a certain date], and if we had gone to court, Chris Jarboe would probably tell you that if we had denied it by saying that we don't think it's in keeping with the Village District, we probably wouldn't have won because there were no guidelines."

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tucker Murphy said she and several of the Chamber's board members viewed the draft manual and are pleased.

"I shared this with a couple of folks ... and everybody is really happy to have something like this in place that they can refer to," she said. "And it's not ambiguous, it's very well spelled out and articulate."

Laszlo Papp, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said commission members are unanimous in their support of the guidelines.

"Any people who have seen it, either at public hearings or otherwise, have supported it and endorsed the idea of a small-town way of life, rural character, historic values and charm," he said. "That's what this is all about."

Kleppin said if the town adopts the manual, he hopes to eventually insert additional guidelines that encourage green building initiatives.

Planning and Zoning members hope to gain public feedback on the draft design manual at a public hearing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8, at the town hall auditorium.