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Opposites Attract: Private Developers Stepping Up Open Space Conservation

By: George Patten 

Highlands Ranch, CO a large scale conservation development.  Image courtesy of

Highlands Ranch, CO a large scale conservation development. Image courtesy of City-Data.com.

Conservation Development may sound like an oxymoron, but it refers to a growing movement in residential development that sets aside areas for open space and habitat within a planned community. It is a particular design approach that promises to provide additional value from both an ecological and economic perspective. Conservation developments or CDs encourage developers to cluster homes on a smaller area and set aside large tracts as open space. CDs are more prevalent in the western U.S., where developers can offer access to natural amenities like streams and trails, but they also are increasingly used in the eastern U.S. As of 2010, there were 33 counties in Colorado, and more than 100 counties across the 11 western states with CD ordinances.

CDs are generally governed at the county level and can offer housing density bonuses to developers that set aside land. One study looked at CDs in five (5) Colorado counties and found that homes had sold at significantly higher premiums (20 to 29 percent) than similar properties in non-CD developments (Hannum, et. al.). The study demonstrated that the Conservation Development approach can provide economic benefits by increasing desirability and property value compared to typical suburban developments.

By conserving more open space than traditional developments, CDs also provide ecological value by protecting wildlife habitat and diversity. Urbanization and development, particularly in suburban and urban-rural fringe areas, have been shown to contribute to losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services through habitat loss and fragmentation. CDs maintain ecological connectivity and habitat to support ecosystem functions. Some argue, however, that the ecological outcomes of CDs may not be living up to their potential, particularly in smaller developments where open space conservation is limited. The ecological benefits of CDs are—to a large degree—dependent on the design and amount of open space available to conserve, as well as the level of management provided for the conserved areas. Smaller areas of open space and those adjacent to existing residential or urban development pose greater challenges for wildlife and ecosystem support than do large, contiguous tract of open space or wilderness. Smaller CDs—with limited adjacent wilderness—require special management and design considerations to achieve meaningful habitat connectivity and resilience.

Many conservation developments are proving that it is possible to provide ecological and economic benefits, which are not the typical features of suburban sprawl. For example, Highlands Ranch is a large master planned community outside of Denver, Colorado; it is among the largest unincorporated communities in the west. A former farmland purchased and developed by the Mission Viejo Company, Highlands Ranch has an 8,200-acre conservation area that connects to an additional 4,200 acres of protected space. More than half of the 22,000-acre development is protected as open space, and managed through staff employed by the community. DC Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, is another example of a large-scale, master planned CD; 4,600 of its 8300 acres are dedicated to open space.

Highlands Ranch Open Space Conservation Area Plan. Over half of the 22,000 acre site is protected open space. Image courtesy of Highlands Ranch Citizens for Responsible Development.

Highlands Ranch Open Space Conservation Area Plan. Over half of the 22,000 acre site is protected open space. Image courtesy of Highlands Ranch Citizens for Responsible Development.

CDs are a compelling community development approach that can result in positive ecological and community outcomes. The actual ecological benefits derived from CDs appear dependent on project size, design, and management. Highlands Ranch and DC Ranch are enormous developments with large areas of open space, which would seem more desirable from an ecological perspective, but scale isn’t the only driver for ecological quality in conservation. Similarly, CDs may have different management goals and priorities that influence conservation outcomes.

The Urban Land Institute published a book on CDs and they identify three types of CDs: (1) limited CDs, (2) conservation subdivisions, and (3) large-scale, master-planned communities. The authors provide examples of small developments, such as Storm Mountain Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and Bundoran Farm in Albemarle, Virginia, which have been given greater ecological consideration by “combin[ing] environmentally sensitive, low-density development with extensive land conservation” (McMahon ULI). They also distinguish CD types by scale because they are likely driven by different economic forces and have unique resource management goals.

It is clear that ecological outcomes from CDs will vary considerably based on project design and goals, and more can be done during planning and management to accommodate wildlife migration and enhance habitat buffers. But for now, CDs offer an important means to leverage the private sector to conserve more open space and habitat.

References: 

Anderson, Bendix. Land Conservation Boots Home Values in Western Subdivisions. Urban Land Institute, 10 June 2013.

Hannum, C., S. Laposa, S.E. Reed, L. Pejchar and L. Ex. 2012. Comparative analysis of housing in conservation developments: Colorado Case Studies. Journal of Sustainable Real Estate 4: 149-176.McKinney, M.L. Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Conservation. BioScience, 2002, 52:10. 883–90.

McMahon, Edward T. Conservation Communities. Urban Land Institute, 1 July 2010.

Worton-Wunder, Emily. “Do Subdivisions Designed for Conservation Actually Help Wildlife? High Country News. N.p., 28 May 2012.

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