Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Updated Guide To Good Development Design

Rural by DesignThis past week I received my copy of the updated guide for building and designing greener, everywhere from rural farms, to small villages, to the suburban fringe, to metro areas.  The second edition of Rural by Design (2015, published by American Planning Association) is out. Its author, Randall Arendt, is a landscape planner, site designer, author, lecturer, and advocate of conservation planning.

The first edition of Rural by Design came out in 1994 and changed many mindsets. Development after World War II had been left to “professionals” working in an orbit very distant from the rest of us. They mysteriously zoned our cities and towns, built our highways and streets and subdivided farms, fields and woods according to the dictates of the automobile.  Arendt and others helped others to understand what people intrinsically knew, that after 40 years “traditional” development was leaving community, neighborhood and nature, including our own, out in the cold. He and others have helped make planning ideas and tools accessible and understandable to anybody wishing to alter their hometown’s development practices.

The first edition of Rural by Design was one of the first comprehensive guidebooks directed not only towards the planning practitioner and planning board, but the community organizer and interested town resident as well. Twenty years later, the second edition is far more colorful than the first. Open any chapter and practical examples of designing better town centers, stormwater and septic systems, streetscapes, and subdivisions in every conceivable type of landscape jump off its pages.

Randall Arendt has visited the Adirondacks on many occasions, including in 2013 when he presented at Strengthening The APA Conference sponsored by the Adirondack Explorer. He also presented directly before the Adirondack Park Agency in 2008.  I remember these take-home quotations from his 2013 presentation:

  • “Let us develop as if human beings were planning to be around and live on this land for a while longer.”
  • “There is no constitutional right to sprawl.”
  • “I look forward to returning to the Adirondack Park when conservation development is the mandate and the norm, not the exception.”

One benefit of owning the book is its many well-illustrated examples. Subdivision design is merely one of many steps being taken around the country that enable governments and homeowners to live more harmoniously with our patch of the earth, and benefit in many cases from higher home values, more resilience in the face of extreme weather, and lower infrastructure costs.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR): The great thing about Rural By Design is that you don’t have to read it cover to cover. You can jump in wherever it most interests you, and then add richness and context by exploring other chapters. Chapter 18 is one every serious Adirondack Park stakeholder will wish to read. It addresses both the basics and complexities of transfer of development rights in small communities. TDR “involves a density swap in which all or part of the development potential of one property (‘the sending parcel’) is shifted to another property (the ‘receiving parcel’) thereby preserving all or part of the former by densifying the latter.” It is a very useful planning approach being used in a number of communities throughout the country and Arendt provides a number of specific case studies.

The author cautions that TDR must not be viewed in isolation from “a larger, long-term land-use plan that has the commitment and the political will of the community behind it.” Some TDR programs have failed at first he writes, because those living in or near the “receiving parcel” or area are dead-set against higher density in their part of town.  TDR requires careful advance study, public input, adoption and implementation in order to overcome political, economic and administrative hurdles. If these hurdles are addressed carefully, then TDR holds great promise for “redirecting and rationalizing development patterns.”

Water and wastewater infrastructure in “receiving areas” is one important prerequisite if receiving areas are to handle additional density.  Also, the small or non-existent staff of a small town need help gaining the capacity to handle TDR administration,  such as “certifying the number of TDRs available at a sending site, issuing TDRs and re-issuing them when they change hands, tracking TDRs in a registry, linking TDR buyers and sellers in a clearinghouse, verifying the authenticity of TDRs presented by receiving site developers and finally ensuring that TDRs are permanently retired after use and that all TDR transactions are properly documented and recorded.”

Extrapolating from the chapter on TDR, such a program on the scale of the Adirondack Park implies the shared planning expertise and close collaboration of every level of government, including APA, the Department of State, counties, towns and villages, in addition to the private business sector. It would also imply citizen training, buy-in and active participation at the local level to make it work.  Senator Betty Little’s TDR legislation in 2012-13 for instance, needed to be strengthened to take into account necessary advance planning work, water and wastewater infrastructure, training,  local planning capacity and park-wide partnerships. As Arendt points out however, “even if TDR programs are used just once or twice in a community, they can still be a worthwhile endeavor if they succeed in preserving a special property that would otherwise have been developed.”

Designing Subdivisions: Chapter 19 is about designing subdivisions to save land, a topic of critical importance to the future of the Adirondack Park. The chapter begins this way:

This chapter describes a technique known as conservation subdivision design, which involves coordinated improvements to existing comprehensive plans, subdivision regulations and zoning ordinances. When properly implemented, this design approach offers municipalities he potential to protect interconnected networks of conservation lands by requiring significant percentages of buildable land to be preserve, in addition to all constrained wetlands, floodplains, and steep slopes. Although higher percentages of conservation land is a key goal, the quality and configuration of those lands are also of great importance to ensure that the most critical resources are preserved and resource fragmentation is minimized. At its best, conservation subdivision design is also accompanied by stewardship plans for each property, specifying the roles and responsibilities of various parties for continuing maintenance and management.

The deficiencies in the latest permit by the APA for a large subdivision in Resource Management lands in Bleecker (New York Land and Lakes, LLC, in January 2015), is reason enough to read this chapter closely.  Arendt’s examples show that the kinds of places where conservation design has been and could be applied vary widely across the country and also vary widely even within the Adirondack Park. But the “design process” described in the text remains common for all.

The following description of the design process comes courtesy of Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley, who participated in Randall Arendt’s two-hour workshop on the topic in 2008 at the Adirondack Park Agency. That workshop was attended by 75 local and regional Adirondack Park stakeholders including many in local government. These are the same steps described in Rural by Design. Another workshop should be sought in 2015 to accompany the new edition’s release.

  1. Walk the project area carefully with skilled scientists and observers. Identify primary and secondary conservation areas. The former are the more obvious land features that ought never to be built on, like wetlands, floodplains and steep slopes. The latter “include those unprotected elements of the natural and cultural landscape that deserve to be spared from clearing, grading and development.” Relating these to the Adirondacks, these secondary conservation areas could mean large blocks of forest or agricultural areas, beautiful views that add value, both monetary and non-monetary, and open space recreational areas. For context, look not just at the project site but well beyond it in all directions.
  2. Create a “context map,” or sketch as early in the process as possible to include primary and secondary conservation areas, followed by a more detailed site analysis map. This stage includes a workshop meeting with the local planning board (or APA).
  3. Create a “concept plan” that shows the conservation areas to be protected, and selection of preferred buildable locations and sites. This plan is still generic and not final. Most land use review “front end” the location of building lots and related engineering work, an expensive set of steps that is a strong disincentive to change plans later on.  Rural by Design shows how to reverse this trend and incorporate collaborative conservation design before a site plan becomes cast in stone.
  4. Drawing in the lot lines is the final step, perhaps the least important part of the process. The final site plans demonstrates benefits to natural resources and open space and adds long-term value to the actual lots and home sites. It may also minimize costs of roads and other project infrastructure. It can provide a sense of community over and above traditional lot by lot configurations laid out without connection to the land only in order to maximize allowable density. Careful design of lot size and location with care for steps 1-3 avoids land fragmentation and preserves natural, cultural and community benefits and inter-connectedness, while, in many cases, attains original density guidelines.

Other notes from the Arendt 2008 workshop at APA, again courtesy of Dan Plumley:

  • “Build out mapping” is a good way for towns to visualize what could be the result of full “build-out” if the APA and/or local intensity guidelines were followed to their logical conclusion. Arendt urges APA and Adirondack towns and villages to address the future now to see what build-out could mean in terms of losing community identity and natural resource connectivity and values. Doing so may incentivize communities to engage more fully in conservation design.
  • Towns should have their own list of priorities for natural resources and open space resources to preserve. Lake Placid (as of 2008) already is developing conservation design principles and has their priority list developed as to what is important to preserve within their landscape. Saratoga Springs also has this. Identify what is important up front – before development proposals fragment or degrade critical local assets.
  • Conservation design can integrate leased lands as “set asides” for farmers. The house site owners gain a view of working farmlands adding value to their properties while allowing low cost leased lands to area farmers.
  • Promote “single loaded roadways” – whereby only one side of a roadway has house sites on it means that all houses have open views of the land, natural features and open space, unbroken forests, etc. – rather than looking across the street at other houses.
  • Promote low volume roads that don’t see significant use and therefore can be graveled as opposed to paved, lowering costs for towns and communities, with less run-off.
  • Make conservation design of subdivisions the default standard, not an option in the Adirondack Park. Affordable housing can be part of that.

For more information about Rural By Design visit www.greenerprospects.com.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

6 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    “Some TDR programs have failed at first he writes, because those living in or near the “receiving parcel” or area are dead-set against higher density in their part of town.”

    “I don’t want this near my property,” followed by a myriad of reasons why is a very popular cry these days. Once someone gets their little piece of the pie, they feel that gives them a right to determine who shares the pie, even though they had nothing to do with the pie being available in the first place. The fact that whatever it is will have the greatest benefit to the community as a whole if located there, is not worthy of consideration as far as these folks are concerned.

    A typical scene in Western North Carolina is, “I bought this property because of the view, you can’t build on your property because it will affect my view,” is a very selfish way to look at these things.

    That’s why there has to be strong community-based control with the guts to tell someone they are being selfish; “your objections are noted, but you’ll have to get over it and move on.”

    • Paul says:

      I think I would lean my favor toward individual private property rights as opposed to this idea of whatever is of best benefit to the “community”. That does work well in places like China but I think we have a different tradition here.

      Sure, don’t buy land across the way from something zoned commercial or high density residential if you have an expectation of privacy but if you buy land understanding that the current zoning will afford you some privacy what is wrong with being opposed to the idea that it could change on a whim. If there is a compelling public purpose sure but that is why the bar should be high for a variance. In many instances (especially in a rural area) much of the value of the property can be based on the fact that it is private. We should be cautious about having the zoning board be allowed to strip folks of the value of their land.

      That is part of the reason this idea of clustering is a tough sell in many places. It might be best environmentally but folks want elbow room. Remember that old School House Rock jingle!

      • Bruce says:

        My thought is if you want a home with lots of elbow room, the only way to guarantee it is to own sufficient land around it as a buffer. There is nothing in the zoning laws, building codes, etc. which say everything will, or should remain static, so that 25 years down the road things will still be the same as when you bought in.

        I’ve seen many cases cited where it was claimed property values would go down, yet it did not happen. In fact, some of those same people are now complaining because their values went up, followed by taxes. The only thing guaranteed is change, and oftentimes that change is not what we would want.

        • Paul says:

          Sure there are no guarantees. But changing zoning does take some effort and that process usually includes input from adjacent property owners.

          One way to ensure some level of privacy in the Adirondacks is to buy land that is surrounded by state land or land encumbered by a conservation easement. Some of the private club owners (and other private land owners) have really scored lately with some of the states new purchases.

  2. Big Burly says:

    Having been the coordinator for my Town’s planning committee for several years, the challenges inherent in educating property owners about the advantages and disadvantages of a more codified use of land were vexing.
    Especially in cases where the rural land has been in the family for generations, the education process takes a great deal of persuasion and patience, sometimes without success.
    The teachings of environmentalists are sometimes facile — in the case of folks like McKibben for example, the methods verge on dictatorial.
    My experience leads me to recommend that taking the long view, that recognizes that people are as important in the solution as the protection of nature and that also recognizes the fundamentals of private property — a unique trait in the founding of this nation — has a significantly greater chance of success for changing behaviors in a positive way than imposing zoning or land use planning by fiat.

  3. Blaikie Worth says:

    Very encouraging, Dave and Dan, thank you!

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