A new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Colorado State University (CSU) looks at conservation development (CD) regulations in the western United States and evaluates the degree to which CD is permitted and encouraged by county planning agencies. The study finds that despite strong economic incentives and widespread implementation, several issues currently limit CD's effectiveness for conserving biological diversity.
Reviewing land-use regulations in 414 counties in 11 western states, the authors of the study found that 32-percent of local planning jurisdictions have adopted CD ordinances, mostly during the last decade. In this type of development, homes are built on smaller lots and clustered together while the remaining portions of the property are protected for conservation purposes. Such purposes include use by endangered wildlife for feeding or nesting habitat, protection of watershed features, and maintaining connectedness with other land. CD has contributed up to 25% of the private lands protected in the U.S..
In their review, the authors found that an ecological site analysis was required in only 13-percent of the adopted ordinances .This analysis is key to identifying the features of the property that should be protected, and allows for biological diversity to be sustained and potentially restored at some point in the future. In addition, results showed that few of the ordinances provided guidance on size or location of protected open space, or required monitoring or oversight after development was completed and, in some cases, the protection was of limited duration.
"Wildlife biologists should be involved in the design, construction, and stewardship phases of development," said Sarah Reed, the study's lead author and an Associate Conservation Scientist with WCS and faculty affiliate in the Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Department at CSU, "Without these important components, conservation development will be conservation in name only."
Last year, Reed co-authored a study that evaluated home sales in more than 200 CD subdivisions across five counties in Colorado. The study found that homes in subdivisions that incorporated protected open space command prices 20 to 29 percent higher than homes in comparable conventional subdivisions. This, along with incentives such as "density bonuses" (allowances for a greater number of housing units per project), make CD attractive to developers. CD accounts for 3-16% of new residential development in the U.S..
Reed said, "It's great that developers and homeowners are seeing strong economic incentives to participate in CD, but we need to make sure that CD subdivisions are achieving conservation benefits as well."
In an effort to assess additional factors contributing to counties adopting CD ordinances, the authors reviewed many indicators such as human population dynamics, land-use composition, and socio- economic factors.
Their results showed that CD ordinances were adopted in counties with recent increases in human population size and density that were 4-7 times greater than counties without CD ordinances. In addition, counties that adopted CD ordinances had 2-3 times more urban, suburban, and exurban development. The authors opined that these patterns likely reflect increased government resources and capacity for land use planning in counties with growing populations, as well as concern regarding loss of open space.
Reed said, "As the economy recovers and home building expands, we have an opportunity to implement better guidelines for CD, to ensure that subdivisions are designed to protect important wildlife habitats, are connected to other natural areas, and that homeowners have the capacity to steward the protected lands over time."
The study notes that CD ordinances were more common in counties with professional planners and in states with model ordinances for CD. In most cases, however, few biological experts are on staff and very little time is devoted to biological conservation in land-planning. Still, just eight percent of CD ordinances encouraged consultation with a biological expert or compliance with a conservation plan.
In their conclusions, the authors call for conservation scientists to improve CD effectiveness by volunteering and sharing their expertise, engaging in land-use policy, and educating and working with local planning staff and government officials, so that biological diversity conservation can be more of a focal point and better incorporated into land-use planning.
The study, "Guidelines and Incentives for Conservation Development in Local Land-Use Regulations," appears in the February print edition of Conservation Biology.
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