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Open Space Protection: Putting Local Plans into Action

8th Annual Biodiversity Conservation Roundtable, October 19, 2012

Image of a meadow in Orange County
Open space plans often highlight important wildlife
habitats like this meadow in Orange County. (Photo
by L. Heady)

The Hudson River Estuary Program provides training and technical assistance to local leaders in the Hudson Valley to advance municipal land-use planning and conservation practices that support the health of the estuary ecosystem. In a 2011 survey of Estuary Program training participants, nearly half of the 56 respondents expressed interest in learning about open space plan implementation and financing for their municipalities. To support these community goals and the conservation of important natural areas, the Estuary Program and Cornell University focused on this topic at our 8th Annual Biodiversity Conservation Roundtable on October 19, 2012 at SUNY New Paltz. Below are summaries of the speakers' presentations, with links to PowerPoint, recommended readings, and other resources related to the Roundtable theme of "Protecting Open Space: Putting the Plan into Action."

Matt Zieper, the Research Director of Trust for Public Land, presenting at the 8th annual biodiversity conservation roundtable
Matt Zieper of the Trust for Public Land at the 2012
Biodiversity Conservation Roundtable (Photo by L. Heady)

Biodiversity Conservation Roundtable Program

Presentation: Open Space Financing Trends and Options in New York State (PDF) (3.5 MB)
Speaker: Matt Zieper, Research Director, Trust for Public Land
Summary: The Trust for Public Land (TPL) works nationwide with communities and government partners to develop open space implementation and funding strategies for land conservation. TPL also conducts research on the community benefits of parks and conservation. In a 2012 study of New York's Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), TPL found that for every $1 invested to protect lands by the EPF, $7 in economic benefits is returned to communities through goods and services, such as filtering air and water of pollutants, and flood control. TPL also maintains the LandVote Database, which tracks conservation finance measures that have been placed on ballots across the country (see "Links Leaving DEC's Website" in the right margin). In New York, over 80% of local conservation finance measures have successfully passed between 1998 and 2010. Even with this very high success rate, the number of proposed state and local ballot measures seeking funds for open space protection has been decreasing, with only the Town of Bedford approving a measure in 2012 and the Town of Pound Ridge in 2010. Key reasons that voters have supported tax increases to support land conservation are drinking water, water quality, farms, wildlife habitat and natural areas, and recreation. Before pursuing a local ballot measure, communities should consider the position of their political leadership, the level of public awareness about the need for land conservation, the level of public support, the availability of a strong working group, and whether there will be organized opposition.

Presentation: Case Study-Town of New Paltz $2M Clean Water and Open Space Protection Bond Act (PDF) (1.7 MB)
Speaker: Cara Lee, Member, Town of New Paltz Clean Water and Open Space Protection Commission
Summary: The Town of New Paltz included protection of environmentally-sensitive areas and natural resources as a priority in its comprehensive plan, and to implement that recommendation, formed an Open Space Committee in 2000. In subsequent years, the committee gathered information, including an inventory of open space in the town; gathered community input; and generated public interest and involvement through a photo contest and computer screen-saver. The New Paltz Open Space Plan was adopted in 2006 and shortly after, a build-out and fiscal analysis were conducted and demonstrated that important places in town were vulnerable. The Town successfully passed a $2 million Clean Water and Open Space Protection Bond in 2006, receiving 63% approval on the measure and marking the first time Ulster County residents authorized the creation of funding for open space conservation. A volunteer-comprised Clean Water and Open Space Protection Commission is responsible for reviewing parcels and coordinating the protection strategies. Since its formation, several significant parcels with important conservation values have been protected through the actions of the Commission. (See link to "New Paltz Open Space Plan," right, for more information.)

Presentation: Protecting Open Space During the Land Use Approval Process (PDF) (2.6 MB)
Speaker: George Rodenhausen, Partner, Rapport Meyers LLP
Summary: New York State's Town Law and Village Law authorize municipal planning boards to require preservation of open space in subdivisions and site plans to "enable and encourage flexibility of design and development of land in such a manner as to preserve the natural and scenic qualities of open lands." Conservation easements are a favored mechanism to dedicate open space because of their ability to preserve lands in perpetuity, but there are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Land trusts, for example, are not always willing to accept an easement if it doesn't fit their defined mission; for example, if the land does not have sufficient conservation value. A solution to this problem is to engage the land trust as a partner in the early stages of project design. Many municipalities have provisions in their land use laws that enable the municipality to accept easements itself; however, there are legal, financial, and practical challenges with this option. Deed restrictions, restrictive covenants, and term easements are other methods to preserve dedicated open space, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Whichever the method, if the goal is to protect lands with significant conservation value, it's essential to conduct a conservation analysis prior to development of the subdivision plat or site plan. A number of Hudson Valley municipalities have policies and procedures in place to require such analysis, such as the Town of Warwick's biodiversity overlay zone. Additionally, a strong comprehensive plan, zoning, and critical environmental areas provide important foundations for protection of conservation lands in a community. (See "Preserving Open Space in Land Use Approvals," below, for more information on this topic.)

Presentation: Achieving High Conservation Value in Protected Open Space in Conservation Subdivisions
Speaker: Lucy Hayden, Executive Director, Winnakee Land Trust
Summary: Achieving high conservation value within a conservation subdivision requires a working partnership with the participating land trust, planning board, and developer. All parties need to understand and mutually agree on the purpose and public benefit of the conservation easement. Planning boards are encouraged to identify primary and secondary conservation resources on the site, and then locate development in a way that minimizes impacts to those resources. It's also important to have an overall strategic vision that protects landscape-scale assets; many land trusts have maps to inform these 'big picture' planning strategies. Where homeowner associations (HOAs) are involved, bringing them on board will help to encourage long-term compliance with conservation easements. (See "Using Conservation Easements in Conservation Subdivisions," right, for more information on this topic.)

Presentation: Case Study - Connecting Open Spaces to Create a Public Preserve in New Paltz
Speaker: Michael Zierler, Member, Village of New Paltz Planning Board and Former Deputy Mayor of Village of New Paltz and Former Co-Chair of Town of New Paltz Open Space Committee
Highlights: The Mill Brook area in the Village of New Paltz is an undeveloped open space highly regarded by the public. Informally used for outdoor recreation by area residents, the Mill Brook, its associated wetlands, and surrounding lands are owned by several private landowners as well as the Town and Village of New Paltz. The idea of creating a formal "Mill Brook Preserve" was included in the New Paltz Open Space Plan (2006) to preserve open space, biodiversity, and wildlife habitats; to allow the existing natural systems to provide flood protection, erosion control, drainage and other natural functions; and to provide recreational and educational opportunities for residents and visitors of New Paltz. The Town and Village's Open Space Committee sought and received funding from the Hudson River Estuary Program to develop a concept for the preserve and a long-range management plan, and formally initiated the planning process in 2004. The first step was to determine appropriate potential preserve boundaries, and involve landowners and the public in identifying appropriate roles and amenities for the Preserve. Later steps included identifying recommended methods for permanent preservation. The draft management plan was completed in 2010. Michael shared several observations about the 10-year, ongoing effort: 1) the creation of the original vision map was extremely valuable, as it graphically demonstrated the relationship between the built community and the undeveloped land; 2) the planning board was very helpful in shaping project proposals for surrounding parcels, which ensured the open spaces were connected and meaningful; 3) the municipal boards assisted in securing funding for a biological survey that provided an important and necessary scientific perspective; and 4) having a group of active citizens engaged throughout the process is essential but difficult to sustain. (See "Mill Brook Preserve Draft Management Plan" link, right, for more information on this project.)

Recommended Reading and Websites

a group of kids and adults on the shore of a river looking for samples to bring home
Strategic open space planning can preserve scenic views,
farmland, wildlife habitat, and places for people to enjoy nature.
(Photo by L. Heady)

Below is a summary of the publications and websites mentioned above, along with additional resources on open space planning and financing. Items with an asterisk (*) are available on the web; see "Links Leaving DEC's Website" in the right margin.

Economic Benefits of Open Space Protection PDF (367KB)
Thomas DiNapoli, State Comptroller, March 2010

LandVote Database*
Trust for Public Land

Local Open Space Planning Guide*
NYS Department of State and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, 2004 (Reprint 2007)

Mill Brook Preserve Draft Management Plan*
Town and Village of New Paltz Clean Water and Open Space Protection Committee, 2010

New Paltz Open Space Plan
Town and Village of New Paltz, New York, May 2006

2016 NYS Open Space Conservation Plan
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Preserving Open Space in Land Use Approvals (Part 1 of 2)
George Rodenhausen, Environmental Law in New York, April 2012 (Vol. 23, No.4), pp. 49-52

Preserving Open Space in Land Use Approvals (Part 2 of 2)
George Rodenhausen, Environmental Law in New York, May 2012 (Vol. 23, No. 5), pp. 65-68.

Using Conservation Easements in Conservation Subdivisions*
Winnakee Land Trust, March 2010

Hudson River Valley Greenway - Grants Overview*

Conservation and Land Use Planning Assistance for Communities

The Roundtable has been offered annually since 2005 and provides an opportunity for program participants and community leaders to gather, learn, and exchange ideas about conservation and land-use planning. For more information on the resources, training, and technical assistance available to help local Hudson Valley communities conserve important natural areas, visit The Habitat and Biodiversity Program for the Hudson River Estuary Watershed page. To learn about additional programs that can assist communities with issues like storm water and climate change, visit The Hudson River Estuary Program page.