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Growing Greener: Conservation By Design helps municipalities and developers build new housing and businesses while protecting important natural and cultural resources. With straightforward changes to municipal ordinances, new subdivisions can leave half (or more) of buildable land as open space while being fair to those seeking to develop their land.
Each time a property is to be developed, Conservation by Design provides the opportunity for adding land to a community-wide network of open space. By making several small but significant changes to three municipal documents – the comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance, and subdivision and land development ordinance – Conservation by Design ensures that conservation becomes institutionalized in the development process.
Conservation by Design rearranges the development on each parcel as it is being planned so that half (or more) of the buildable land is set aside as open space. Without controversial “down zoning,” the same number of homes can be built in a less land-consumptive manner, allowing the balance of the property to be permanently protected and added to an interconnected network of community green spaces. This “density-neutral” approach provides fair and equitable treatment to landowners and developers.
Conservation by Design manages growth while protecting natural and cultural resources for little or no public cost. Other than purchasing land or easements, no conservation method has been more effective at permanently protecting open space in Pennsylvania.
Conservation by Design differs from traditional cluster developments in that it establishes higher standards for both the quantity and quality of open space. Most importantly, through a four-step design process written into the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance, it places conservation planning at the beginning of the development process rather than at the end.
Conservation by Design works within the parameters of existing state enabling legislation.
Conservation by Design begins with the municipality deciding to examine its current land use practices and conservation goals. Implementing the Conservation by Design approach involves four key elements:
Community assessment helps municipal leaders to clearly see the long-term effects of continuing forward with their current ordinance provisions – generally an outcome which yields a pattern of widespread “sprawl”. This step examines the adequacy of current plans, zoning and ordinances to shape future growth in a way that fosters healthy and safe communities, higher quality of life, open space protection, scenic view protection, and other goals of the municipality’s comprehensive plan.
To ensure that a community has a good understanding of their natural and cultural resources, it is important to include a map of potential conservation lands as a component of the municipal comprehensive plan. This map serves as a reference point for documenting priority resources and is used to guide the location of open space in new subdivisions.
Under Conservation by Design, the usual sequence of steps in the subdivision process is reversed, with boundaries of protected space defined prior to road layouts. The “greenlining” process identifies conservation areas for protection, both those restricted by current regulation and those unprotected features to be excluded from the development area. By defining the conservation areas first, this process virtually guarantees superior land use outcomes as compared to conventional practices. Other critical components of the subdivision and land development ordinance include a site visit, context map, greenway design standards and existing resources & site analysis plan.
Conservation by Design amends the current zoning ordinance, creating a menu of options that support the conservation goals of the municipality’s comprehensive plan. For example, the new zoning will encourage open space protection by providing maximum density only when open space has been protected. The zoning code includes disincentives so as to discourage land consumptive development patterns. In this way, the new zoning provides an economic incentive to “set aside” larger open spaces. Most communities using Conservation by Design offer at least three options for residential development.
Adoption and Administration of Land Use Regulations
Any municipality can access the Conservation by Design model land use regulations, at no cost. Adoption of regulations is, by its nature, a time-consuming process best accomplished with public education and input. The Conservation by Design model ordinance, published nationally by Island Press, typically requires nine to eighteen months for adoption.
While municipalities should hire an experienced land use planner to adapt the regulations into local codes, ongoing administration of the regulations is on par with other land use regulations. However, it is wise to train planning commission members in the land use planning options available under Conservation by Design.
Conservation by Design is backed by educational outreach and technical assistance to municipal officials via a collaborative program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services, Natural Lands Trust, and an advisory committee of officials from state and local agencies, non-profits and the private sector.
Natural Lands Trust, a regional land conservancy in Media, PA, administers the Growing Greener: Conservation by Design program. Municipalities may receive an assessment of their existing land use regulations, evaluating how the Conservation by Design standards could apply in their community. Grant money is also available through Natural Lands Trust to match municipalities with private sector planners who have taken a course in Conservation by Design ordinances. Natural Lands Trust also offers assistance identifying conservation lands and reviewing conservation subdivisions to ensure that the open space in conservation subdivisions contributes to a greater community conservation network.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as well as several counties, including Chester, Monroe, Cumberland and Berks, have made grant money available to municipalities that wish to adopt Conservation by Design land use regulations.
Once a municipality has enacted the Conservation by Design land use regulations, the impact is quickly realized. New open space will be protected with every new land development project in the municipality.
What happens with the open space protected under Conservation by Design depends on the qualities of the particular parcel and the goals of the municipality and developer. The open space could be farmed. A homeowners association could use it for passive recreation by residents. The land could be added to a municipal greenway or trail system. A combination of these or other uses could occur.
Laying out a Conservation by Design subdivision is similar to designing a golf course development — the golf course is never an afterthought. With Conservation by Design, you craft development with the woods, farm, or other key land features in mind from the beginning.
A national survey found that 37% of homeowners who live in golf course developments don't play golf. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in two Montgomery County golf developments, nearly four out of five residents have little or no interest in golf.
“Many live in golf course developments just to get the open space. We should build more golf course developments — just leave out the golf courses,” says Randall Arendt, author and Senior Conservation Advisor at Natural Lands Trust.
Growing Greener: Conservation by Design is a collaborative program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR); the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services and Natural Lands Trust. Guidance is provided by an advisory committee comprised of officials from state and local agencies including the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension, and other non-profits and the private sector.
Ann Hutchinson was the original author of this document.
Copyright © is held by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association
Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of ConservationTools.org and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.