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Conservation subdivision law considered; Lumberland law would make them mandatory

By Fritz Mayer
January 18, 2012

Most of the attention to the proposed new zoning code for the Town of Lumberland so far has gone to Article 10, which would ban some high-impact industrial uses in the town such as gas drilling. But there is another element of the law that will also represent a significant change: the adoption of mandatory conservation subdivisions in some areas.

According to the proposed zoning, which is posted on the town website at, subdivisions of five lots or more will require that half of the land in the subdivision be set aside as open space in the Rural Residential and Mongaup River Valley districts. Of that amount, not more than 50% can be wetlands, steep slopes, water bodies or other unusable areas. According to the zoning map, these two districts represent about 30% of the land in the town.

While mandatory conservation subdivision laws exist in many communities in the country, if adopted, this is believed to be the first such zoning law in Sullivan County. The River Reporter asked three local planners their opinions of conservation subdivisions, and their answers follow.

Planning consultant Tom Shepstone wrote, “Conservation subdivisions are a great idea but don’t work everywhere and aren’t suited for every property. That’s why I oppose mandating them, especially for very small projects. You can be sure any town that does this will quickly be looking for a way around the provision because they’ll learn you cannot write a rule for every situation when it comes to subdivisions. It’s essentially planning by the textbook, not real world planning. Flexibility is essential.”

Planning consultant Alan Sorensen wrote, “The devil is in the details.” He posed a number of questions, such as: “Can the ‘open space’ be contained within a residential lot or does it have to be part of a separate ‘open space’ parcel which is held in common by a homeowners association or land trust? The latter would likely provide the best opportunity for meaningful open space that preserves wildlife habitat and perhaps provide opportunities for recreation.” In this case, the open space will either be owned by a homeowners association or by “a private conservation organization acceptable to the town.” Sorensen added, “I suspect there will be an increase in four-lot subdivisions, which would avoid the 50% open space requirement.”

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While Lumberland has an abundance of open space, the predominance of the land is in private ownership. A whittling away of this open space through conventional subdivision, even into large lots, would result in a suburban style community not in keeping with the parameters set forth in the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. All communities were once an abundance of open space, including cities and suburbs. Once rural areas have become monotonous suburbs resulting in the degradation of qualities Lumberland seeks to preserve. Even in the case of large lot subdivision, the open space is still not protected, and can result in a suburban feel.

Conservation subdivision allows the same number of units as conventional subdivision, and offers density bonuses when a project meets higher design criteria or offers increased community benefits. The resulting development pattern is the predominant change that would be a result of Conservation Subdivision. The concept of conservation subdivision arose out of a desire to preserve farmland and other important land features and evolved into a method of serving ecological roles as well. It is a development strategy strongly connected to preservation of rural areas.

Conservation subdivision is currently a part of the Town’s zoning law, and the Planning Board currently has the right to require a conservation subdivision from a developer proposing to subdivide property.

Conservation subdivisions offer additional environmental and economic benefits when compared to conventional homes in a similar housing market (Milder). Research shows that homes in conservation subdivisions sell faster, sell for more, and can save on construction costs when compared to similar homes (Bowman, Thompson, & Colletti). In South Kingston, Rhode Island, lots in conservation subdivisions cost an average of $7,400 less to produce and sold in about half the time compared to lots in conventional subdivisions (Mohamed). In 2009, researchers in Iowa determined that developers underestimated the importance that potential home buyers place on open space. Residents responded they would be willing to pay up to $2,000 more for homes with proximity to open space (Bowman & Thompson)

It is a misconception that everyone wants their own 5 acres. For those potential buyers who ask for 5 acres, it is important to know what that 5 acres represents, since many of the qualities a purchaser expects from a 5 acre parcel, will not be protected or delivered by a 5 acre parcel. Protected open space is ensuring that the reasons people locate in an area such as Lumberland remain. DPEM has received innumerable neighbor complaints from people buying homes and then being upset when a traditional subdivision carves up the property next door and their precious open space and views are gone. Be it privacy or community, single or communal ownership, recreational opportunities or views, all can be accommodated in the conservation subdivision model. Ultimately, a developer should know the market and be able to design a subdivision that places emphasis on those aspects the he or she feels are important to his or her intended market.

As mentioned in addition to preserving agricultural land, open space is now expected to serve important ecological roles by providing natural habitat, reducing runoff volumes, limiting landscaping and lawn maintenance, and providing natural cooling (Berke et al. 2003; Burchell et al. 2002; Dramstad, Olson, and Forman 1996). These ecological benefits in turn translate into higher levels of residential satisfaction (Kaplan, Austin, and Kaplan 2004). It is a way to balance development while protecting what the town and residents value.

Communities in which conservation subdivisions exist receive benefits as well. There is added protection from increased stormwater runoff and the associated potential for increased flooding outside of the development site. There is less maintenance of infrastructure such as roads and school bus routes and stops. There is the potential for community wide increases to recreational opportunities, as well as the community wide benefits from maintenance of the rural character that has drawn and kept the Town’s current residents.

For home-buyers, the open space is a valuable amenity for aesthetic and recreational reasons, as well as for economic reasons. Homes in conservation subdivisions tend to appreciate faster than comparable homes in conventional subdivisions and to sell for higher prices than similar homes on larger lots in subdivisions without significant open space amenities. Buyers are willing to pay more for land adjacent to protected greenspace. Homes in conservation subdivisions, despite smaller lot sizes, can sell for significantly more than those in conventional developments – as much as 33 percent more by some estimates (McMahon & Pawlukiewicz, 2002; Fowler and Wenger, 2001; The Trust for Public Land, 1999; Arendt, 1996; Lacy, 1990). Homes in conservation communities also tend to sell faster (Mohamed, 2006; Arendt, 1996). Developers also enjoy potential cost savings associated with reduced infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, and utilities) and reduced land preparation costs required by compact conservation designs (Mohamed, 2006; Fowler & Wenger, 2001; Arendt, 1996).

Links to an example of a house in a conservation subdivision:

1 hour from Chicago, the houses range from mid $100 to mid $400’s. Most resales have been people selling smaller cottages to build bigger houses at the Farm. In every case houses have sold for more than the owner paid. Values have steadily increased.

Other points about conservation subdivisions.

• Indiana, Michigan, Florida, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Georgia (even Wasilla Alaska!) I am not sure there are any States that don’t promote this concept.

• The cost of developing the lots can be reduced, which can support the inclusion of some affordable housing units as part of the development project.

• Future service costs for public infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and water lines, are lower because roads and water/sewer lines can be shorter.

• School buses, refuse trucks, snow plow and other service vehicles will have shorter service routes.

• Property values within conservation subdivisions can appreciate faster than properties in conventional subdivisions due to the added amenities provided by the adjacent open space.

• Residents enjoy the recreational opportunities and views provided by the preserved open space.

• Important and unique natural and cultural features, such as archeological or historical sites, can be protected.

• Can reduce the amount of impervious surface created, thus reducing runoff to local water bodies, such as rivers and streams.

• The open space can provide a buffer to protect water bodies and other natural areas, lowering the impact that development has on fragile natural features.

• A larger network of protected areas and open space can be created if open space is connected across several developments and potentially support trail networks for walking, biking, and hiking.

• The clustering of houses can encourage more walking and more frequent interaction with ones’ neighbors, fostering a stronger sense of community