Conservation and Open Space Plans

IN BRIEF

Conservation planning is the foundation of any community’s efforts to protect the natural resources and values that are important to a community.  For Vermont towns, this can take the form of either a stand-alone natural resources and open space plan (which must then be incorporated into the town plan by reference) or chapters in the municipal plan that address natural resource concerns.  Effective conservation planning begins with high quality data and broad community input, includes clearly articulated and measurable objectives, and lists a series of implementation steps.

SUMMARY

Everybody loves wildlife and natural areas.  The problem is, everyone has their own definition of what constitutes “natural.”  For some people, deer and backyard birds are the most important resources to protect.  For others, rare liverworts and salamander habitat are the only things that are worth serious conservation effort.  A thoughtful conservation and open space planning initiative can identify common ground among town residents regarding how much emphasis to place on various kinds of wildlife habitat and associated natural values.  Conducting a comprehensive evaluation and weighting of natural resource concerns – and identifying the tools to protect them – helps to smooth the process of guiding growth in ways that protect what people value about their community’s natural landscape.

The first step in conservation planning to identify what wildlife resources and natural area values are most important to community residents.   To prepare for this initial outreach phase, it is often helpful to assemble basic data and create a few maps as a starting point for conversation.  More intensive data collection comes later, so all that is needed at this point is a clear presentation of the kind of data that can be obtained from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and other state and federal partners.  Because wildlife and other natural resources do not recognize political boundaries, it is also important to coordinate from the start with other towns and regional groups that share the town’s natural communities, watersheds, and other landscape level features.

TIP: Getting the Right People EngagedIt is particularly important to involve owners of large tracts of undeveloped land, as private lands with conservation value are a much bigger piece of the picture in most Vermont towns than are publicly owned lands.  Outreach techniques that are especially useful for engaging large landowners (as well as others in the community) include:

  • Focus groups
  • One-on-one interviews
  • Citizen advisory councils

As the process of community engagement begins to reveal what issues or resources are most important to the town’s residents, the next step is to initiate targeted collection of data about resources that:  a) are of high importance; and b) are not well documented.  There is considerable statewide information about wildlife and natural communities, including maps showing the distribution and rarity of natural community types, data on species of greatest conservation need, and a range of landowner incentive programs for conservation.  However, a community will likely need to conduct additional inventories at a smaller scale to fill in the gaps.  Towns can often realize significant cost savings by working with neighboring communities to conduct joint inventories.

Once key data have been gathered and analyzed, the third step is to develop a series of specific – and limited – conservation objectives and criteria for conservation success that are grounded in that data.  Particularly in towns that are experiencing significant growth pressure, it is impractical to call for the preservation of all natural areas.  The key is to develop a series of criteria for setting priorities in the most specific terms possible.  What specific resources are most important to town residents?  Where are they found?  And what is required to protect them?  Plans should identify the natural communities, species, or other natural resources of particular concern, their general locations and extent, and measures of success for their conservation, including goals for types and extent of protection desired.   For example, if town residents voice strong support for protecting large blocks of forest habitat, the plan should, at a minimum:

  1. State the goal in clear terms (for example, “To protect large blocks of forest habitat from fragmentation, degradation, or development to the maximum extent possible”)
  2. Define what is meant by “large blocks” (such as, “Areas of at least 500 acres that have no roads of class 3 or higher and no structures other than seasonal camps”)
  3. OPTIONAL (if data are available):  Identify on a map those areas that qualify as large blocks of forest habitat and document how it was determined that the indicated areas met the definition
  4. Set specific policies for how the town will encourage or require the protection of large forest blocks (with regard to road construction and upgrade policies, minimum lot size, and so on)
  5. Establish criteria for assessing progress towards the goal established under step 1 above
TIP: Staying on Solid Legal GroundAs was made clear by a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision(Appeal of JAM Golf, LLC, 2008 VT 110), conservation objectives have to be clear enough that any reasonable person reading them will understand what is required in order to meet the standard.  Phrases such as “…shall protect important wildlife habitat…” are not enforceable, as they leave unanswered key questions such as what “protect” requires and what constitutes “important.”

Finally, a conservation and open space plan should include an implementation strategy that outlines all the key steps for meeting its objectives and identifies who will be responsible for each step.   These tasks should be phrased such that it is clear when the task has been completed.  It is also useful to divide tasks into major categories, such as data collection, updates to the town plan and bylaws, education and outreach, and so on.

Related Issues

Related Case Studies

Resources

The Community Wildlife Program is an initiative of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department that offers comprehensive assistance to communities that want to develop or update conservation and open space plans.

The Vermont Center for Geographic Information offers free GIS data layers, including natural resource and open space-related information.

The Vermont Planning Information Center offers a range of issue papers on planning topics, including one on open space and resource protection programs as well as one on open space and resource protection regulations.