Since this blog’s focus is on land development principles and practices labeled “conservation development,” it is important for readers to know what conservation development is not.  Generally speaking, true conservation development connects land development to land conservation — in a manner that assures meaningful natural resource protection.

The Label “Conservation Development” Is Often Misused

Not every development project labeled a conservation development project is a conservation development project (e.g., one that provides for meaningful natural resource protection).  The primary reason for the mislabeling of land development projects as conservation development projects is the variation in requirements local jurisdictions require for a project to be considered a conservation development project under local land use laws.

For example, reducing the quality of the developed land’s functioning ecosystem and biodiversity and replacing it with a patchwork of green lawns for outdoor recreation does not serve the essential objective of conservation development.  Hence, the key determinative factor of whether a land development project is a true conservation development project is twofold:

  • First, the project’s design must significantly outperform conventional subdivisions and baseline scenarios in terms of protecting biodiversity and associated ecosystem functions.
  • Second, the project’s design must not reduce biodiversity and concomitant ecosystem functions below what they would be if the land is not developed.

Conservation Development is not Incompatible with Private Developer Profit Motives

Far from limiting profitability, conservation development projects provide a development approach through which developers can generate financial returns competitive with, and oftentimes above, financial returns that would be generated if a traditional land development approach was.  Not widely discussed in academic literature on the subject, the ability of conservation development to align with the profit making objectives of developers is a strong means by which sustainable development can be achieved with the help of the private sector.  On the project revenue side, homebuyers are willing to pay a premium to live in a more natural environment with a higher amount of intact natural green space and uninhibited local wildlife.  On the project cost side, capital costs can be lower than conventional land development for traditional new infrastructure such as roads, as well as green infrastructure — to protect against environmental hazards such as flooding and water pollution.

Conservation Development Is Not a Device that Stops Growth

The exurban and rural landscape continues to see rapid growth.  Conservation development will not stop growth from occurring.  Both natural condition land, as well as working lands such as large agriculture plots and forest districts, will be altered by conservation development projects.  As is the case with all development forms, conservation development is about how to develop the land.  As Kris Larson of the Minnesota Land Trust put it, conservation development does not save all land, “but it’s a great tool in the right circumstances.”  What true conservation development can do is prevent unnecessary destruction of — and negative impacts on — the ecosystem and “ecosystem services”on the land where development occurs.

Conservation Development is not Green Building

Green building focuses on the planning, design, construction, and operations of the vertical aspects of a development project’s built environment.  The central concerns are energy efficiency, water use, indoor environmental quality such as air quality, use of natural light, waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, and the use of environmentally sustainable materials.  Conservation development focuses on the horizontal aspects of a development project’s site.  The central concerns are ecological mapping at the outset and identification of ecological resources to be preserved, site planning and design around the area’s ecosystem (and other corresponding land planning actions).  The good news is that conservation development and green building standards are not mutually exclusive and indeed often complement one another in a mutually beneficial way.  This is because green building recognizes and is premised upon the vertical built environment having profound effects, both positive and negative, on the natural environment.

Conservation Development is not Mandatory Low Density Development

Conservation development is far too often mistakenly viewed as synonymous with low density development.  While low density conservation development projects occur, where they occur is typically a function of the preexisting landscape in which the conservation development is built.  A typical example is rural areas where the land had previously been subdivided into large farms or ranches.

Conservation Development is not “Cluster” Development

Conservation development and cluster development are commonly misperceived as synonymous.  They are not, although conservation developments can incorporate clustering concepts and occasionally do.  Cluster development congregates residential units into abutting smaller lots in one area (or just a few areas) of a development footprint, which significantly reduces the residential dwelling development footprint.  Cluster development then designates the now more expansive non-lot areas for recreation, common open space, or as natural areas.  It typically connects such areas with pedestrian paths, which can help minimize the infrastructure needs of the development.  However, cluster development does not require the preservation of the development area’s functioning ecosystem and biodiversity, or even site planning and design that preserves some of the area’s natural resources.

Conservation Development is not for only High-Income Homebuyers

Conservation development design principles apply to a wide range of development projects.  This includes projects targeted at middle-income homebuyers.  Also, conservation development projects are increasingly incorporating housing set-asides for lower-income households.  One noteworthy example is Beacon Hill Lane on Block Island, Rhode Island, where seven affordable single-family homes were built for year-round residents next to a natural open space that was permanently preserved.