Ecologically-based Municipal Land Use Planning

Current land use practices are doomed to failure because they rely on zoning that ignores the capacity and function of the community's natural resources.
January 4, 2001, 12am PST | William B. Honachefsky, P.L.S., P.P.
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William Honachefsky"The planet Earth has been the one home for all of its processes and all of its myriad inhabitants since the beginning of time, from hydrogen to men. Only the bathing sunlight changes. Our phenomenal world contains our origins, our history, our milieu; it is our home."

That poignant summation by Ian McHarg in his 1969 tome,Design with Nature, should be inscribed over every entranceway to every planning board meeting room in every municipality in the United States. It should likewise be part of, if not the preamble to, every Municipal Master Plan. Perhaps then the nation's land planners would have a permanent reminder as to what land use planning is really all about.

It is not about guaranteeing a profit for landowners, investors or developers. It is not about encouraging a steady improvement in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or lowering real estate taxes. It is about protecting our home and standing watch over the air, water, soil and vegetation on the Earth's crust that makes life possible.

That the nation's local land planners have yet to embrace this stewardship ethos is painfully reflected in the landscapes they are continuing to produce -- landscapes that have changed little from three decades ago when McHarg described them as, "the expression of the inalienable right to create ugliness and disorder for private greed".

It is somewhat difficult, however, to blame the nation's local land planners completely, when they merely reflect the attitude of a busy American public that has little time or interest to contemplate the welfare of the natural systems that keep us alive. If you doubt this widespread disinterest, ask your neighbors where the water from their tap really comes from or into which stream their wastewater is finally discharged after it is flushed down the toilet, shower, or kitchen sink.

On the surface at least, current municipal land use practices certainly appear to incorporate more opportunities to minimize environmental damage. It is now common practice, for instance, for communities to require the submission of a site-specific environmental impact statement (EIS) for the largest land development projects, and local ordinances now frequently require more onsite control of storm water runoff , soil erosion, vegetation removal, and steep slope construction. While these are certainly well-intentioned additions, there is a dark side to their application. Collectively, they perpetuate a system of segmented reviews, analyses, and mitigation, that is the antithesis of the way natural systems actually function. The scope of inquiry, for example, of all those site-specific EISs rarely extends beyond the boundaries of the project site. This leaves planners to ponder alone (if at all) the off-site, cumulative effects (and there are many) of all these individual projects.

While local planners may wring their hands, shake their heads and complain there is little they can do; they are, in fact, partly responsible for their own dilemma. They insist on pursuing land planning practices that should have been discarded years ago.

From the outset planners preordain themselves to ultimate failure, if not years of vexing confrontations with landowners, developers, and the courts. I am talking about the zoning map, the deadly instrument that is now largely responsible for guiding much of the nation's local land use and for bestowing unearned economic value on private property, primarily through density allocations. Unfortunately, these density allocations are prescribed irrespective of the carrying capacity, health, structure and function of the community's natural resources. Zoning rarely benefits the nation's natural resources. It does, however, increase the economic expectations of private land owners, and once granted, such expectations are rarely relinquished voluntarily thereafter.

James Kunstler, author of Home from Nowhere perhaps sums up best what is a growing consensus concerning current zoning practices: " ...if you want to make your community better, begin at once by throwing out your zoning laws. Don't revise them -- get rid of them. Set them on fire if possible and make a public ceremony of it; public ceremony is a great way to announce the birth of a new consensus".

While I believe that our local land planners have a strong commitment to environmental protection, they, much like the rest of the nation's citizenry, remain appallingly uninformed about the structure, functions and overall health of the environment they want so strongly to protect. This pronounced lack of knowledge greatly weakens their ability to function as advocates for protecting the community's natural resource systems (ecological infrastructure), and puts them constantly at the mercy of self-serving hired experts whose scientific inquiries rarely track the impacts of their client's proposed land form changes beyond the borders of the site's property boundaries.

Yet, the cumulative effects of these off-site impacts have contributed greatly to the nation's current environmental malaise. As custodians of Earth's resources, which include those creatures that share the planet with us, we have a rather dismal track record, and unless we quickly change the way we currently prescribe our land use, we are destined to burden the generations to follow, much as we were betrayed and burdened by our predecessors who left us with what now appear to be everlasting legacies of contaminated sediments, soil, water, air and a long list of extirpated species.

Ecologically-based municipal land use planning does not equate to no growth. To the contrary, it recognizes that growth, along with accompanying land use, needs to be directed to areas that are intrinsically best suited for it. The attractiveness of ecologically based municipal land use planning is that it can be accommodated within the existing land use planning tools and practices already in place, such as the municipal master plan and zoning ordinances, with some modification. We need not reinvent the wheel. We have known for decades, if not centuries and millennia, either by intuition or by experience, that certain lands are inherently dangerous or inappropriate for human occupation.

The late Winston Churchill once observed, "Americans usually do the right thing, but only after exhausting all their alternatives". It is time to do the right thing.

William Honachefsky, an environmental scientist, is also licensed as a professional land planner, a professional land surveyor, and a health officer in New Jersey. He is also certified as a Qualified Environmental Professional, (QUP), a Certified Hazard Control Manager, Master Level (CHCM), and a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control (CPESC). He is the author of three books on land use and environmental planning. His current book,Ecologically Based Municipal Land Use Planningmay be purchased directly from the publisher, CRC Press at 800-272-7737 or on the Web.

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