Conservation Development Builds R.I. Character

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Ocean State still teems with wetlands, historic farmsteads, scenic views and pristine forests. Unfortunately, if your community is still working within the confines of an outdated and conventional land development plan, you can say goodbye to these features that give Rhode Island its character.

In many Rhode Island communities, current comprehensive plans hinder forward-thinking development, according to officials. Minimum lot size requirements often result in zoning practices that create 5-acre pieces of property, they say. Common building-to-street setback requirements cause backyards to shrink and encourage property owners to extend their lots beyond their legal boundaries and into protected forests and wetlands.

Regulations like these that discourage compact development result in sprawling, grid-like residential areas that encroach on environmental features and culturally important sites. They also eliminate the traditional character of close-knit neighborhood communities by moving neighbors further away from each other.

Scott Millar, who spoke at the Nov. 30 Conservation Development Workshop put on by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve, said things don’t have to remain this way. Millar, who heads the DEM’s watershed initiative and has more than 20 years of experience in environmental management, policy and planning, is a champion of conservation development techniques — their use growing since the 1980s when poor planning and zoning were the norm.

“I was a biologist by education, but got into planning because I realized that there had to be a better way to develop land than the process we were using at the time,” Millar said.

The most important principle of conservation development is that at least 50 percent of any given parcel remains undeveloped in perpetuity at no cost to the city or town. The community also is allowed to guide growth to the most appropriate areas within a parcel of land to minimize negative impacts to the environment and to preserve community character.

Development is going to happen, so communities need to advocate for it in a better way, Millar said.

Millar recognizes that conservation development has to be “win-win” if it’s going to gain traction with municipal decision-makers and developers. Studies have shown that conservation development practices save communities money by reducing the amount of land they have to buy to ensure preservation. Additionally, such development drastically cuts down on the amount of infrastructure required to develop a parcel of land; this means government funds are saved as a result of reduced service costs associated with building and maintaining roads, sidewalks and utilities.

From a developer’s point of view, conservation planning results in a faster review process for projects by eliminating sensitive areas as options for development early in the planning process. It also results in higher value and marketability of a site when it comes time to sell.

When considering real estate value, location is the driver. Homes in nice neighborhoods with natural, recreational and cultural amenities nearby will generally be more valuable than their peers in conventionally developed neighborhoods.

The environmental and social advantages of conservation planning are obvious. Wildlife, wetlands and their vegetative buffers can be preserved, while less impervious surfaces resulting from fewer miles of road and driveway mean less polluted runoff. Historical and cultural features such as farmsteads can be protected, while aesthetic features and scenic views can be taken into account during the planning process.

Additionally, a sense of community will be promoted by walk-able and bike-able neighborhoods that include recreational outlets and gathering areas for residents.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to the implementation of conservation development is that it has to yield the same building density and profits that could be achieved by using conventional methods. Unfortunately, until comprehensive town plans and zoning laws are changed to allow for smaller lot sizes and higher-density building practices, this can’t be achieved in many situations. As a result, cookie-cutter neighborhoods with little regard for the character of the landscape are still being built.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of DEM and the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve, 14 Rhode Island communities, including Bristol, South Kingstown and, most recently, Johnston have adopted a conservation development ordinance. Ten other communities are drafting such an ordinance.

Beyond Rhode Island, Massachusetts also has had success changing zoning laws to allow for its conservation development and open space planning. This is important to the Ocean State, as so much of the water that ends up in Narragansett Bay trickles in from our neighbor to the north and east.

So far, about 8,000 acres of land in Rhode Island have been preserved from development thanks to conservation development, according to Millar.