In June of 2017, the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education published the Conservation Land-Use Policy Toolkit as part of our work to evaluate policy options, incentives and planning tools that can help local governments conserve land. While state and federal governments play a critical role in conservation, cities, towns and counties often design the regulations that dictate how a region can grow and can establish incentives that support conservation. This toolkit was published with Chesapeake Bay Program funds administered by the Chesapeake Bay Trust. It describes and evaluates seven policy tools that local governments can use to slow the conversion of farms, forests and wetlands, thus protecting the environment, preserving rural character and sustaining the economic vitality of farm and forestry industries.
Each state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed operates at least one land conservation program. These programs differ in how they incentivize conservation and dis-incentivize development. A local government’s decision to adopt a land use policy tool can depend on the existing regulatory and political landscape, the tools that are in place in their own or in neighboring jurisdictions, and their administrative capacity. Regulatory land use policy tools can include:
- A comprehensive plan, which articulates a strategy to guide the future development of a county, city or township;
- A zoning ordinance, which controls the physical development of property within the borders of certain parcels of land;
- A subdivision ordinance, which regulates the division, consolidation, boundary change or development of parcels of land;
- Impact fees, which require developers to fund the new or expanded public capital facilities that will serve their developments; and
- Urban service boundaries, which limit the extension of public services (e.g., water and sewer infrastructure) in order to dis-incentivize development outside of a particular area.
Voluntary land use policy tools can include:
- A conservation easement, which restricts uses or development that would damage resources on a landowner’s property; and
- A transfer of development rights program, which allows a landowner to sell the development rights from her land to a buyer for use on her land while maintaining existing agricultural or forestry uses.
An evaluation of policy options, incentives and planning tools that can help local governments conserve forestland, in particular, was also published in June of 2017. Considered Phase I and Phase II of a three-phase task, the Healthy Watersheds Forest Retention Project explains how local governments can save resources by using forest conservation as a method of managing stormwater and includes “toolkits” of policies and practices that can support forest conservation in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Phase III of the Healthy Watersheds Forest Retention Project will be completed in 2019 and will train local leaders in the implementation of the policies and practices described in Phase II. The project leads will work with a pilot locality in Virginia to quantify the impacts of land conversion, evaluate the policies and incentives that support conservation, and create a “How To” guide to help local governments across the region prioritize land protection.
Phase III of the Healthy Watersheds Forest Retention Project will also produce a financial model to incentivize private investment in land conservation. To create this model, the project leads will develop an inventory of existing land use programs and funding sources, evaluate and target investor interest, and aggregate demand.