Conservation and Development Can they coexist? Posted on December 23, 2014 by UPLLC

For many, the terms ’Conservation’ and ‘Development’ are mutually exclusive concepts. How can you conserve something while simultaneously develop it? For both landowners and developers, it is possible to create a more responsible model of development by protecting and enhancing the natural heritage of a property while providing space for human communities. In some cases, conservation-based development is more marketable, provides higher returns, and creates a more enjoyable and sustainable place to live.

The Unique Places strategy behind planning and implementing conservation-based development starts with a true knowledge of the ecological resources on the land. Knowing what is present can help us make decisions to help protect these ecological assets for the future. For example, water resources should nearly always be protected and conserved. This can be accomplished by providing adequate stream and wetland buffers that minimize and control erosion and sedimentation after large precipitation events and also provide important wildlife and aquatic habitats.

In addition to water resources, less apparent ecological resources may also exist, and to the untrained eye, can be unknowingly impacted. Over the years, the state of North Carolina Natural Heritage Program has developed and continually updated a standard to classify and rank rarity of natural communities from the Mountains to the Coast, called the Fourth Approximation Guide. Also, a recent book Wild North Carolina: Discovering the Wonders of Our State’s Natural Communities, has brought this information to the public in a simple, less scientific and beautiful coffee-table book.

There are almost 200 hundred natural communities in North Carolina and it can be difficult to differentiate the subtleties between a community that is common and a community that is state or globally rare. Any project Unique Places embarks on starts with the identification and delineation of these natural communities and a survey of rare plants and wildlife resources in an effort to capture as much data about the property as possible.

With this baseline of natural community knowledge, one can decide how to protect those sensitive communities, or even highlight them as an amenity. Small, rare spot-communities can be easily avoided with simple preservation – an easy way is to avoid development and disturbance all together. In all cases, developers and future owners should be made aware of these areas on their land or, to go a step further, even protect through either dedication of common open space or conservation easements.

Many landowners and developers know that placing conservation easements on property is a mechanism for protection that can help offset capital gains through Federal tax deductions. Unfortunately, North Carolina has terminated the conservation tax credit program at the state level as of January 1, 2014, making the financial incentive to conserve land less attractive. This doesn’t mean that conservation of sensitive areas should not be considered. There have been multiple studies conducted that conclude a lot adjacent to open space will be worth more than one that is not, especially in more urban or suburban areas. Imagine if every lot in a development had a connection to open space and lots had more space between one another? The return on each lot would most likely be greater and that increase in value would offset the need for additional lots to make a pro-forma work. While there is surely a balancing point, a good planning process to define conservation areas and well-placed home sites can help find that balance.

Another opportunity, in both traditional developments and those that are conservation-based, is the protection of ecological assets via community common space. Regardless of how the lots are defined, a conservation area can be dedicated as a common area. What is important is how the common area is defined. Typically, one defines home sites/lots first and common areas second. With a conservation-based approach, one would define the common area first based on the ecological assets, then define the location and size of the lots.

In summary, the developer or landowner may reap financial returns in two ways: 1) by offsetting taxes from capital gains by placing a conservation easement on a portion of the property – something that would not be able to be done if it were just left-over lands and 2) lots can obtain a premium price for being near or adjacent to open space.

Once conservation areas are defined, these deliberately designed common spaces to protect ecological assets, or true ‘Preserves’, can be further managed for natural community health. Simple practices like invasive plant removal, protection of plant and tree communities, reintroduction and promotion of struggling plant and animal species, are all simple things that can be done within the confines of a conservation development as part of the HOA management activities.

Identification of the ecological resources is the first step, responsibly preserving them is second, and actively managing the land to improve and sustain in perpetuity is, sometimes the least discussed and most important final stage. Preservation and management can be done on all scales – from a single-family lot to large multi-thousand acre developments.

From Unique Places’ perspective, development and conservation can co-exist and be beneficial to the ecology of the land and the human communities that rely upon the health of the land. Well-designed development at any scale is critical to the future of our communities. Continuing to “subdivide and conquer” will only lead to unsustainable use of resources, reductions in healthy ecosystems and lower quality of life for all.

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