Putting ROE to Work

Collaborate. Ally. Share. Cooperate. Assist. Aid. Befriend.

Photo: Courtesy of Audubon PA

This work takes a village. Join ours.

If the local economy is to remain strong, environmental stewardship cannot be the responsibility of a few dedicated people. Environmental stewardship must become part of the community’s everyday culture. Municipal officials and residents can play unique but critical roles in implementing an ROE. Offering a beautiful place with a healthy environment and a sustainable economy creates a competitive advantage for sustainable growth and provides a sense of community pride for current and future generations.

Go Native

Native plant species ensure ecological sustainability, diminish pests, and support local wildlife.

  • Remove invasive plant species, and replace lawns with native flowers, shrubs, and trees.
  • Improve stormwater absorption by creating rain gardens and reducing paved surfaces.
  • Make a brush pile of downed leaves and branches to provide food and shelter for wildlife.
  • Enjoy your own Homegrown National Park.

Grow Together

Connected healthy habitats protect water sources, improve air quality, and benefit the community.

  • Share photos of native gardens and local wildlife on social media and community websites.
  • Organize a neighborhood landscape challenge or community native plant and seed swap.
  • Limit mowing along waterways to reduce erosion and support clean water for the community.

Get Involved

Awareness, inspiration, and action will lead to better policies for environmental protection.

  • Support local conservation efforts to protect open spaces and watershed wildlife corridors.
  • Promote the use of native plants in parks, trails, community gardens, and public spaces.
  • Join an Environmental Advisory Council, Bird Town, watershed association, or other conservation organization.

Implement an ROE Study

Know what you have.
Document community resources with thorough inventories of natural, cultural, and historic resources. The ROE Green Ribbon map is a great starting point.

Set goals for conservation and development.
Comprehensive and Open Space plans are a great way to do this, as is mapping resources and setting conservation priorities.

Maintain a sound zoning framework.
A good zoning code both meets “fair share” obligations and encourages conservation of natural areas even as development occurs. If you don’t have a planner on staff or on your Planning Commission, reach out to the county planning department or a professional consultant for assistance.

Adopt a process for “conservation subdivisions.”
These compact residential developments conserve natural features through design standards and the submission of sketch plans before detailed engineering is completed.

Get to know your landowners.
Maintain good working relationships with owners of large or important lands. This allows community concerns to be discussed before landowners make irrevocable decisions about development of their properties.

But the best, zone the rest!
Adopt mechanisms for acquiring important conservation lands, through purchase, voluntary donations, and local land use regulations.

Lead by example.
Those parks and trails don’t take care of themselves. Land management can be accomplished by the Township or in partnership with public, non-profit, and private landowners.

Keep nature on the agenda.
Public forums on nature, and involvement of Environmental Advisory Councils, local non-profits, and conservation professionals helps build a broad base of public support for nature.

Comprehensive Plan

All municipalities are required to review and/or revise a Comprehensive Plan every ten years. Article III of the PA Municipalities Planning Code outlines items to be addressed in the plan. DECD’s Publication Implementable Comprehensive Plans is also an excellent resource.

Incorporate ROE in decision making by including ROE data in Comprehensive Plans. In addition to the municipal comprehensive plan, begin every land use, economic development, tourism, recreation, and other topical planning processes with a clear understanding of the financial value of nature’s current financial portfolio of assets. Determine what is needed to sustain these benefits and avoided costs, and incorporate conservation strategies in Comprehensive and other municipal plans.

Multi-Municipal Plan

All municipalities can benefit from multi-municipal planning. Choosing partner municipalities with varying places for land uses helps in distributing uses across a region. A multi-municipal comprehensive plan is one involving more than a single municipality. Some of the key benefits of communities collaborating through multi-municipal comprehensive plans include:

  • Enabling municipalities to share intensive land uses across the region, rather than providing for all uses within each municipality.
  • Presenting opportunities to reduce costs by sharing resources.
  • Discouraging unnecessary economic competition or service duplications.
  • Making local projects more competitive for county, state, and federal funds.

ROE data can inform priorities on which areas within a region are most critical to conserve and enhance to sustain the benefits and avoided costs provided by natural areas. These areas can then be called out in the Multi-Municipal Plan with goals, objectives, and conservation strategies.

Land Use Regulations

All municipalities have the authority to pass land use regulations in accordance with the PA Municipalities Planning Code. Land use provides the greatest leverage for maintaining a healthy environment and strong economy. Land Use Regulations, implemented in Zoning and Subdivision & Land Development Ordinances, play a major role in protecting habitat and open space. Zoning regulations cannot be relied upon to permanently protect land as the mechanisms can be amended or abolished by municipal elected officials. Nonetheless, they can play a critical role in managing growth and conserving landscape connectivity. Tailor the standards to local economy, natural resources, demands for housing, and resident needs. Adopt standards that direct development away from resources identified in the ROE.

Infill and Expand Existing Growth Areas

Municipalities with existing town or village centers benefit from infill incentives in Zoning. Developing communities can identify Zoning districts where it is most appropriate for high-intensity growth, near transportation, and away from fragile ecosystems. Comprehensive Plans can include strategies for new growth and development to first infill or expand existing developed areas, thereby conserving outlying natural areas that provide high ROE value. While difficult to establish true “growth boundaries,” designating high-density zoning districts where growth belongs and employing open space zoning and land acquisition in outlying areas can reduce disruption or destruction of ROE value.

Open Space Zoning (Conservation Subdivision)

This land use tool is most applicable to developing municipalities with land available for residential development. Open space zoning, often known as conservation subdivision, is an updated form of “cluster” development and a way to permanently increase open space and habitat. The purpose of open space zoning is to preserve a large amount of open space in new developments while allowing full-density development in the form of more compact neighborhoods. In contrast to cluster zoning, where the emphasis is on providing recreation areas and buffers, open space zoning is focused on protecting interconnected woodlands, stream corridors, scenic views, farmland, and historic sites. This technique is especially helpful in assembling contiguous lands with natural features identified in ROE studies. Where higher-density development with open space is desired, a Village Option is available.

Overlay Zoning

All municipalities have the authority to use this land use tool in accordance with the PA Municipalities Planning Code. Overlay zoning applies additional regulations to an underlying zoning district. The restriction supersedes the provisions of the underlying district. Overlay districts have been used to conserve floodplains, historic sites, or other sensitive natural resources or features, making this tool an excellent one for implementing an ROE study. Standards should avoid and mitigate impacts to natural areas identified in the ROE and other conservation plans.

Riparian Buffer Zone

All municipalities with streams and wetlands can benefit from this tool. Riparian Buffer Zone standards in Zoning require that trees and other vegetation along the edge of streams and wetlands are protected. These vegetated areas have the highest ROE values. The ROE financial value of implementing a riparian buffer ordinance can be calculated before passing an ordinance. The width of the buffer will depend on the objectives behind the ordinance. In most situations, 100-foot vegetated setbacks on either side of a stream provide high water quality benefit. In older, historic developed areas, this standard is not feasible and should not be required.

Official Map

All municipalities have the authority to have an Official Map in accordance with the PA Municipalities Planning Code. It is most effective when funding exists to acquire open space, trails, and greenways; or when Zoning code requires open space, such as with conservation subdivisions.

Official Maps identify public or private land that the municipality has identified for current and future public needs. The map is a powerful planning tool for ensuring that land will be available where it is needed for roads, trails, parks, riparian buffers, water supply, and other potential public infrastructure. The Official Map expresses a municipality’s interest in acquiring the land for public purposes. The maps can also be used to pre-determine open space locations in conservation subdivisions and lands to be conserved in other forms of development. The Official Map is authorized by the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code as both an adopted map and ordinance. A handbook is available to guide county and municipal leaders and planners.

Transfer of Development Rights

This land use tool is most relevant to municipalities wishing to preserve working farmland and sometimes, large areas with environmentally constrained land. Transfer of development rights (TDR) is a voluntary, incentive-based zoning tool used to direct or “transfer” development away from environmentally sensitive areas and farmland to an area with the capacity to accept higher-intensity development. TDR is a method by which developers can purchase the development rights of certain parcels within a designated “sending district” and transfer the rights to another “receiving district” to increase the density of their new development. Municipalities must ensure there is a logical place to transfer the development rights, able to accommodate higher density.

Native Plant Landscaping Ordinance

This ordinance is applicable to all municipalities and can be passed in accordance with the Municipalities Planning Code. A municipal subdivision and land development ordinance may contain standards for landscaping. Typically, standards address parking lots for non-residential uses (office, retail), stormwater management areas, buffers, and common open space. The ordinances include a list of native trees and shrubs as approved plant material, implementing ROE goals for sustainability and future habitat and ecological value as the plant material in new development matures and grows.