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Townships rethinking conservation zoning

February 22, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Pa. -- Antrim and Washington township officials are making the most of the latest lull in southern Franklin County development by rethinking how conservation zoning fits into their comprehensive plans for the future.

But as Washington Township hopes to finally pass a conservation ordinance more than three years in the making, Antrim has begun whittling away at the ordinance its supervisors blame for weighing down an already complex process with unnecessary bureaucracy.

Local planning engineer Tim Cormany said Franklin County was not prepared for the development boom that came in early 2000.

The explosion of housing developments in Antrim and Washington townships made elected officials fearful that, at the rate things were going, sensitive natural resources would be removed to make way for massive planned residential developments or PRDs.

Cormany, who is vice president at Martin and Martin Inc., the Chambersburg, Pa.-based planning engineer for Antrim Township, said Antrim became the guinea pig for conservation zoning in 2006 when it was the first township in Franklin County to adopt Conservation by Design, a progressive new development approach spreading west from the Philadelphia suburbs.

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Conservation by Design approaches development from a completely different angle. It involves the municipality from day one by making the first priority not how many lots can be carved out of a tract of land but how much of the natural resources can and should be saved.

Antrim Township Supervisor Curtis Myers said his township hastily adopted Conservation by Design used by the Natural Lands Trust with the idea that it would tweak the ordinance's flaws in six months.

Officials knew there were parts of Conservation by Design, notably that a homeowners association be created to manage all preserved open space and the extensive township involvement in the process, that were not a good fit for Antrim when it adopted the ordinance, he said.

"Six months came and went, here we are three years later with the same thing," Myers said. "With the market in a lull, there could not be a better time to fix this problematic ordinance."

Washington Township Supervisor John Gorman said officials noticed early on that the Natural Lands Trust version of Conservation by Design was more restrictive than Franklin County needed.

Still committed to conserving resources, Washington Township put together a committee and spent years drafting its own version of a conservation overlay ordinance.

"I knew we needed something when a proposal came to the board to rezone 1,100 acres of farmland for residential development," he said. "We also felt that requirements in the Conservation by Design, like the land preservation formulas, were too strict."

Conservation by Design requires that select sensitive natural areas be subtracted from the total acreage, reducing the size of the tract before another 50 percent of the land is set aside for preservation.

In the last three years, Conservation by Design has proven to be so restrictive and involved that in Antrim Township only three developments have been proposed under it, while five have been waived from the requirement.

Antrim Township Zoning Officer Sylvia House said the ordinance has been difficult for staff to work under because of its formulas for preserving open space and the many steps required to bring a plan to the board for consideration.

"I like to see creativity with guidelines," she said. "This is too restrictive, but we still need to mandate something or developers can get too carried away."

Former Antrim Township Manager Ben Thomas said Antrim pushed to get Conservation by Design in place because the supervisors at the time felt the PRD ordinance was giving developers latitude to misuse land in the name of more money.

Cormany, who helped the township write its Conservation by Design ordinance, said he does not want to see his work go down the drain, but said he also feels Antrim rushed into Conservation by Design before it was "married to the idea."

When the ordinance passed in May 2006, it passed on a 3-2 vote, with Myers and Supervisor Sam Miller opposing.

Myers said the PRDs approved back then were "disasters" that traded quality of life for 550 homes crammed on tiny lots. He wanted change. Looking back, he said Conservation by Design was "the pendulum swinging way past center," an extreme Band-Aid to fix the extreme problem of PRDs.

Myers agrees that Antrim's natural resources and historical lands need to be protected, but said he hopes a more flexible conservation overlay ordinance will be the answer.

Gorman said Washington Township has learned from Antrim's struggle with Conservation by Design and hopes to continue to learn more as Antrim works to fix its ordinance.

Unlike Antrim Township, which overlaid Conservation by Design in all of its 13 zoning districts, Gorman said Washington Township's draft ordinance reserves conservation zoning for its agricultural, forest conservation and low-density residential zones only. It also leaves management of open space to the developer and sets a fixed percentage for preserved land that includes sensitive areas.

More than three years since those first talks about conservation zoning, Gorman said the committee presented the Washington Township Planning Commission in September 2008 with a conservation ordinance that should make supervisors, staff and developers happy.

Myers said Antrim is a long way from being happy, but he thinks it can get there -- hopefully after just a few more workshops.

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