Photo by Jerry Monkman with support from LightHawk

Land conservation trusts have been helping landowners to protect their land from development in New England and eastern New York for more than 50 years. Over the last two decades, more and more land trusts have chosen to team up with other organizations and agencies to protect and steward more land at a larger scale, creating more expansive areas of protected land across town and sometimes state and international boundaries. These private-public collaborations are called Regional Conservation Partnerships or RCPs. There are 42 RCPs in the region that are members of the RCP Network, which makes it easier for RCPs to exchange information, collaborate with new partners, and advance the pace and practice of landscape conservation in the region. With the recent publication of the report Wildlands and Woodlands, Farmland and Communities, RCPs have looked to the Network to help them engage with new partners like professional planners whose activities and interests overlap with theirs. As a result, the Network sought to introduce members of the planning community to those of RCPs at last year’s RCP Network Gathering.

The 2018 RCP Network Gathering marked the first time the conference featured an entire track of workshops on smart growth topics, including a session titled “Local Zoning and Regulation for Land Protection,” which brought conservation and regional planning experts, mostly from Massachusetts, together to discuss the intersection between local land use planning and landscape conservation. Speakers Joel Russell, a MA-based land planner and attorney, Wayne Feiden, Director of Planning and Sustainability for the City of Northampton, MA, Peggy Sloan, Director of Planning and Development at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and Elisabeth Hamin, Professor of Regional Planning at UMass Amherst shared their perspectives on the ways in which conservation organizations can partner with regional planning agencies or councils of government and local municipalities to further mutual conservation goals. Beginning with presentations that addressed collaborative land protection, zoning for land conservation and water management, and building strong relationships between municipalities and conservation organizations as a launching point, the session delved into a wide range of topics prompted by questions and comments from workshop participants.

Local master (or comprehensive) plans and zoning (or land use code) set the stage for where land conservation is possible at a local and a regional scale. As one speaker put it, “local government holds the cards.” While most conservation organizations do not typically get involved with advocating for or against development, many know well how often outdated local zoning code can promote development patterns that no longer match the vision of the community. Good zoning can provide enormous opportunity for folding conservation and climate-change-adaptation practices into everyday land use decisions at the local level. RCPs, in close association with regional planning agencies, can help local governments benefit from the connections between regional conservation visions and activities and their municipal comprehensive planning and zoning.

Opportunities for Collaboration in Land Protection and Open Space Planning

Many land trusts are already collaborating with local governments on land protection projects. In places where a land trust partners with a municipality on land conservation, the land trust may play a role in lining up funding, engaging landowners, assembling parcels, and providing technical assistance in financing and acquisition. In Massachusetts, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) requires independent parties to hold conservation easements on land acquired by the municipality with CPA funds, essentially mandating these kinds of partnerships on CPA-funded projects. The City of Northampton, MA, which is very active in fundraising for and protecting land from development, has arranged for a local land trust to hold all future easements without charging the City for transactional costs (e.g., appraisals, surveys, etc.), in exchange for the City’s agreement to limit the amount of competitive fundraising they do for land acquisition.

During the open space planning process, conservation organizations can demonstrate where and how to prioritize open space protection, helping cities and towns to look beyond the parcel-level to see their land in a regional context. In Massachusetts, for example, land trusts can also work with municipalities to plan for and exercise their right of first refusal to protect parcels coming out of the state current use program (Chapter 61).

Opportunities for Conservation in Local Land Use Regulation

Support for land conservation at the local scale often relies on the public’s trust that it will not artificially inflate the cost of buying a house and the area’s cost of living. Zoning plays a critical role in balancing open space and development in a way that maintains the availability of affordable housing. Zoning has the power to limit the kind of sprawling development that binds up important open space by making it easiest to develop where development is most desired by the community, such as downtown or in targeted development areas.

One speaker pointed out that most developers are wary of the development permit process because it is discretionary. Allowing the type of development that is desired by right and less desirable development by permit encourages conservation-oriented development. Like other zoning tools, this approach helps “make the right choice the easy choice” for developers.

Residential planned unit developments (PUD)s and smart growth districts such as Massachusetts’ Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District Act (40R) encourage mixed-use, transportation-oriented, higher-density residential areas at the heart of the smart growth development approach. Cluster zoning, (known by many names, including open space zoning or conservation subdivision), requires higher density development and a greater proportion of open space while maintaining the same intensity of use (people per acre) as conventional zoning.

Conservation with limited development, in which a small number of developable parcels are carved out of a larger conservation parcel, is a technique municipalities can use to fund land protection and at the same time maintain the availability of housing. The City of Northampton, MA has coordinated 15 limited development projects as a way to preserve open space, create key development opportunities, and model for developers how to utilize these conservation tools.

In states where transfer of development rights (TDR) programs can be locally adopted, municipalities can design TDR regulations that steer development away from desired open space (“sending areas”) to areas where the community wants to develop (“receiving areas”). Owners of open space in sending areas are financially compensated for permanently protecting their land from development, while developers are permitted to build, for a fee, at a higher density than that which is allowed under the regular zoning for that district, making it possible to realize higher profits per square foot of real estate.

In addition to many of the conservation-zoning tools already mentioned, increasing allowable uses in agricultural zones can support the viability of local agriculture. By permitting more businesses to be run out of the same location, farm owners can diversify their income and increase profitability. Farm building reuse bylaws, such as the one in Buckland, MA, allow the lease or sale of historic agricultural structures for select commercial purposes.

Opportunities for Climate Change Adaptation and Watershed Conservation in Local Land Use Planning

Working in collaboration with regional planning agencies and councils of government, RCP partners can support municipalities in managing for increased flooding, a result of climate change, by assisting them with land protection and river and wetland restoration projects. Supporting sub-watershed-scale projects that reconnect rivers to their natural floodplains or protect land with the capacity to receive more water flow can be done at the multi-town scale, as the Franklin Regional Council of Governments is beginning to do with towns in the Deerfield River watershed. River corridor zoning, such as Vermont’s River Corridor Overlay district, protects active river areas from further development. Working with municipalities on watershed protection either through land protection or land use regulation can direct future priorities for RCPs.

Low impact development bylaws, such as those outlined by Mass Audubon in their bylaw review tool, promote the use of green or natural infrastructure intended to help manage excess water flow in developed areas with a high percentage of impervious surface while improving water quality, reducing stormwater management costs, and improving quality of life in urban areas. Land use codes that require low impact development incentivizes municipal support for urban conservation projects such as greenways, pollinator gardens, pocket parks, tree belts, and community gardens. Projects that increase the infiltration of water at both large and small scales confer numerous social and environmental benefits to people and the environment, especially in the age of climate change.

How Can RCP Members Build Trust with Local Governments?

While cultivating relationships with local government to inform land-use decisions no doubt comes with political risk for independent conservation organizations, building these connections can be highly productive. Getting to know the people in regional planning agencies and local governments in your service area, understanding their organizational culture and where your values align on conservation practices, and learning about their needs are important steps in figuring out how best to get involved in local and regional planning. The following recommendations came out of the November workshop:

  • Avoid positions of advocacy for or against regulation or development. Avoiding advocacy keeps RCPs out of adversarial roles and helps preserve relationships with the municipality and landowners. RCPs can raise money and get people together to acquire vulnerable land, getting to be the “good cop” to an advocacy organization’s “bad cop.”
  • Develop knowledge of local planning and zoning to make your organization a credible and valuable resource to municipalities. Small towns in particular may turn to conservation organizations for assistance in improving their land use code. One speaker shared the story of a land trust that helped with fundraising and the hiring of an independent consultant for a local code re-write. This earned the land trust a reputation for being trustworthy and indispensable, which in turn increased the extent to which the town relied on the land trust’s expertise and opinion during the re-writing process.
  • Work on projects together. Consider partnering on land protection, green infrastructure projects, open space, and comprehensive plans, and in special circumstances, supporting code re-writes.
  • Increase the diversity of your board or steering committee. Bring in political and business leaders and broaden the spectrum of occupations and social attributes that characterize the leadership of your organization to integrate the concerns of the land trust/RCP into the larger social and political sphere.

Future RCP Network Gatherings will continue to explore ways in which planning tools and other local regulations can work in tandem with land protection, as well as opportunities for further collaboration between the conservation and planning communities.

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  • For those of you with APA memberships or access to APA publications, Northampton City Planner Wayne Feiden has a lengthy piece on conservation limited development titled "Conservation Limited Development for Local Governments" in this month's PAS Memo. The article discusses partnerships, financing, limitations, and explores several interesting examples of how the tool has been applied. Feel free to email me for a copy of the PDF.
  • This is a superb summary of the importance of connecting land conservation groups with local planning, land use regulations and municipal officials. A great quick reference guide on a crucially important topic!
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