Zoning bylaws are intended to implement a community’s land use plan by designating the types of land uses, densities, and development standards that are appropriate for different areas (i.e. zoning districts). Where a community wants to protect natural resources, a conservation district may be appropriate to protect natural features by limiting the allowed land uses, ensuring low overall densities, maintaining large parcels suitable for resource management, and promoting development patterns that avoid natural resources.
Many municipal plans identify areas within the community where development should be avoided, or only occur at low densities and be subject to standards designed to prevent or mitigate impacts on identified resources. Examples of such areas include those with fragile environmental features, such as steep slopes, water resources, wildlife habitat or high elevation lands. Including these areas in a resource conservation (or “resource protection”) district is an effective means of preventing the degradation of those resources through inappropriate development.
Chapter 117 (24 V.S.A. §4414) of Vermont’s Statutes authorizes municipalities to adopt a variety of types of zoning districts to address different land use goals, including: “Agricultural, rural residential, forest, and recreational districts deemed necessary to safeguard certain areas from urban or suburban development and to encourage that development in other areas of the municipality or region.” These are described as being relatively exclusive districts, limited to identified resource management objectives (e.g., farming, forestry, outdoor recreation), and either excluding other types of land use and development, or only allowing limited land uses (e.g., camps) at very low densities. This statutory provision is what enables towns to create a conservation district.
Conservation districts are often drawn so that they include high elevation forest resources, but can also be used to protect significant resources found in low-lying areas, such as important wildlife corridors and crossings, or rare communities such as sandplain or clayplain forests. These districts will oftentimes include standards to protect water resources, avoid erosion or resource fragmentation, and ensure that any allowed development is designed and sited in a way that does not adversely impact natural resources.
It is important that the standards that apply in a resource conservation district be written to support the natural resources present. Too often, resource conservation districts are developed with the best of intent, but include standards that are counter to that intent. For example, some towns allow single and multi-family residential development with only administrative review (i.e., review by a zoning administrator) throughout their conservation districts even though this type of development usually has an adverse effect on wildlife and landscape connectivity.
Drafting clear standards for resource protection, and ensuring the new development does not harm those resources, is key to an effective resource conservation district.
Related Case Studies
Conservation Zoning District – Marshfield, VT
Conservation Zoning District – Bolton, VT
“Conservation Zoning Districts,” Community Strategies for Vermont’s Forests and Wildlife: A Guide for Local Action. Chapter 12, p. 41.
Vermont Land Use Planning Implementation Manual: Open Space & Resource Protection Regulations. This provides more detailed information on conservation districts.
Vermont Planning Statutes. This link provides the legal framework for conservation zoning districts as referenced in Vermont Planning Statutes.
Please Note: Language used in this summary was adapted from Community Strategies for Vermont’s Forests and Wildlife: A Guide for Local Action, Chapter 12.