How to Build a Neighborhood(?) Part 3: Conservation Subdivision

My last article talked about “traditional” neighborhood design. This article will talk about “conservation” design.

A “one size fits all” approach to residential design does not always work for each and every parcel of land. Different geographic areas in a region have variety and uniqueness to them. So too do different parts of our towns. Thus, evolving ways of thinking about land use and development are looked at to achieve the needs and wishes of a community but also of individual property and homeowners, while still holding true to the basic tenets of land use planning and zoning.

Randall Arendt discusses “conservation” neighborhood design in his books Growing Greener, Rural by Design and Conservation Design for Subdivisions. 
There are four key components of “conservation” design: 1.) Envisioning the future through your town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD); 2.) Conservation planning and mapping by identify natural, cultural and historical resources; 3.) Zoning for land uses by having regulations to bring into effect your town’s POCD goals; and 4.) Designing residential subdivisions by following a four-step process.

The first part of this process is to walk the land in order to identify areas that are unbuildable and areas that are worthy of preservation. Let’s say you buy 120 acres of land, looking to develop it. You identify 20 acres of wetlands (unbuildable). You identify 20 acres of open spaces, farmland and forest that are identified for preservation by your town’s “co-existing” resources maps. These 40 acres are set aside and the remaining 80 acres are planned for development (buildable).

The second part is to locate housing lots on the buildable area in such a way as to maximize the benefit from views of the undeveloped land or that abut the conservation land. You can do this several ways. By placing the houses in a traditional design layout but having the set aside land run in back of each lot, you can buffer the neighborhood from what is around it and vice-versa, making each lot look bigger than it actually is by having private land flow into undeveloped land. By running the street around common land, you can have each house front set away from the opposite house front, thereby opening up the middle of the neighborhood. By spacing groups of houses in several clusters or in one cluster around the land parcel, you can decrease the development impact in particular area and have the set aside land flow around and/or in between each cluster. By situating some of the set aside land toward the front of the neighborhood, you can buffer or hide the houses from the main street, lending an air of privacy to the neighborhood.

The third part is to map out streets to connect the houses. The fourth part is to define the individual lot lines. The number of individual housing lots depends upon what the regulations require for minimum lot sizes and allowed density of housing in any defined area. If your town has a 2.5-acre minimum per lot, then in the above example you could have up to 32 lots.

This preliminary building plan is discussed with your Town Planner and with your Planning and Zoning Commission in order to get further input. By doing all of these things upfront and knowing ahead of time what the regulations require and what the permitting process is all about, you can save time and money when you submit a final land use application.

Some communities build into their regulations that a certain percentage of the buildable area must be set aside for conservation land. For example, in Woodstock, that number is 50%. In the example above, there are 120 acres of land that contain 20 acres of wetlands (unbuildable). This leaves 100 buildable acres. Half (50 acres) will be set aside as undeveloped. The remaining half (50 acres) can be built upon with houses. Different percentages of conservation set asides can be used depending upon what a community chooses to have in its regulations. Some communities provide a menu of options (incentives and disincentives) depending upon the individual characteristics of each land parcel. Some specify a pre-defined percentage of set aside land for each and every subdivision proposal.

“Conservation” neighborhood design has its advocates and its critics. Set aside land could define trails, open areas and land corridors for increased house/property values, scenic beauty, recreation, sustainability of natural resources and protection of wildlife on the land parcel itself and in an entire town. For some people, having to set aside a set percentage of their land when it is developed is viewed as a public taking of private land. For others, who take out loans on the value of their land (for personal or business reasons), such value may be adversely affected if not all of the land could be profitable through development.

It is a balance. The challenge is to have zoning/subdivision regulations that strive to achieve realistic, common goals; that are practical and common sense in their use; and that are fair and not burdensome to the average person.

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