Land-use planning is instrumental in balancing future growth and development with protection of community character, natural resources, and open spaces. Municipalities often find themselves reacting to proposed development rather than planning for future growth, or making decisions on development projects without considering the larger context. This approach to decision making can lose sight of broader-scale issues and goals, such as climate resilience, walkable communities, connected habitats, or watershed management.
There are numerous ways a municipality can plan for growth while ensuring the preservation of their valued resources. Some of these tools are reports that can be used by elected officials and planning boards to make better informed decisions about the type of development they wish to encourage, some are local laws that target the conservation of specific resources, and still others are broad-scoped plans that express a municipalities aspirations for the type of place they wish to remain or become over time.
Below is an overview of common planning tools for conservation.
A comprehensive plan is an expression of the community’s vision for the future and a strategic map to reach that vision. Comprehensive planning is an important tool for towns to guide future development of land to ensure a safe, pleasant, and economical environment for residential, commercial, industrial, and public activities. A comprehensive plan lays the foundation for zoning codes, the legal tool for implementing the vision of the future contained in the comprehensive plan.
Natural Resources Inventory
A natural resources inventory (NRI) compiles information on important, naturally occurring features within a given locality (e.g., municipality, watershed, or region), such as geology, soils, streams, wetlands, forests, and wildlife. Cultural resources such as scenic and recreational assets are often included, as well. NRIs are comprised of maps, data, and a report that describes the resources and the project. By visualizing an area’s resources—where they occur and how they relate to each other, their surroundings, and existing development—an NRI provides a strong foundation for informed land-use planning and decision-making.
Open Space Index
The next step communities can take is to produce an open space index (OSI). The purpose of an OSI is to create an inventory of undeveloped, “open” land within the town and assign value to those spaces according to the data provided in the NRI. Open space can be parks, farmland, forests, recreational areas, or meadows, all of which contribute to the character of a town and the integrity of municipal resources like drinking water. By cataloging these spaces and describing their value, town officials tasked with guiding growth can better understand where development might make more sense and where conservation can benefit the municipality.
Community Preservation Plan
If an OSI is a method for identifying open spaces and explaining their value to the community, a community preservation plan (CPP) is the next logical step in identifying those parcels that would be most advantageous for a community to preserve and why. A CPP takes the data presented in the NRI and OSI and uses a process of examining overlapping values, as identified by the community, to create a prioritized list of properties that have the highest conservation value to the town. This may be parcels that contain surface drinking water resources, areas where recreational opportunities exist, or land that abuts existing preserved parkland.
As the name implies, a zoning overlay is drawn on top of existing zoning districts, and represent additional regulations on the development of land based on the value to the community of specific resources that exist within one or more zoning districts. Overlays can be specific to scenic resources, such as ridgelines and vistas, can focus on the preservation of agricultural land, or can focus on preserving the special environmental or historical character of an area within a town. Conservation overlay districts can be a useful strategy to protect natural resources in a community because standard zoning typically focuses on human settlement patterns and not environmental conditions.
Ordinances are additions to a town’s zoning code that typically control specific activities such as noise, lighting, or tree removal. The power to enact local laws is granted by the NY State Constitution. If a town’s zoning code is found lacking in terms of protections for certain resources during the development process or if specific concerns about resources have arisen that are simply not addressed in the code, town government can create and adopt an ordinance to augment the existing code. Depending on the content of the local law, the process of adopting it can require public hearings and even referenda in certain cases.