Agricultural Conservation Subdivision


What is it?

An Agricultural Conservation Subdivision is a type of conservation subdivision specifically designed to protect farmland.

Conservation subdivisions allow, or require, houses to be grouped together at densities that exceed the usual requirements in order to protect, at the very minimum, half of all open space.  Under the agricultural conservation subdivision approach, the community works with the applicant to fit the development into the landscape in a way that maximizes the protection of important agricultural resources. The conservation subdivision is “density neutral”, i.e.  it allows the same number of dwelling units as a conventional subdivision.

What are the benefits?

Agricultural conservation subdivisions can provide economic, environmental, and social benefits in the following ways:

  • It is easy to understand and implement.
  • Residents enjoy the rural character and scenic views provided by the preserved farmland.
  • Prime soils and soils of statewide importance are protected as basis for production of local food for the community.
  • The cost of developing the lots can be reduced, which can support the inclusion of some affordable housing units as part of the development project.
  • Future service costs for town are lower because roads and water/sewer lines can be shorter: School buses, refuse trucks, snow plow and other service vehicles will have shorter service routes.
  • Property values within conservation subdivisions can appreciate faster than properties in conventional subdivisions due to the added amenities provided by the adjacent open space.
  • Can reduce the amount of impervious surface created, thus reducing runoff to local water bodies, such as rivers and streams.
  • A larger network of protected areas and open space can be created if open space is connected across several developments and potentially support trail networks.

Conservation vs. Cluster Subdivision

Conservation subdivision design differs from “clustering” in three important ways.

  1. Where cluster ordinances typically require only 25 or 30 percent open space to be set aside, agricultural conservation subdivisions designate at least half of the land as permanent, undivided farmland. Unlike most cluster provisions, this figure is based only on the acreage that is “buildable”.
  2. Municipalities can exercise greater influence on the design of new conservation subdivisions and require “small footprint” design approaches to conserve soils identified as particularly valuable.
  3. The protected land can be configured so that it will contribute to creating contiguous farmland throughout the community.

Agricultural Conservation Subdivisions as a part of a comprehensive approach to farmland protection

The Agricultural Conservation Subdivision  is just one tool as part of a comprehensive approach to protecting a community’s farmland.  Some of the things to consider with this approach include:

  • The percentage of buildable farmland to be preserved may be larger on prime soils, or in a designated agricultural zoning district.
  • The conservation subdivision may also require that the protected land is entered into an easement held by the municipality or a land trust.
  • It may be mandatory, depending on the quality of soils. Or in a weaker version, be based on incentives, such as a density bonus compared to conventional subdivisions and/or “by-right” permitting.
  • The preserved farmland may also be used as “sending” area for a “Transfer of Development Rights” to allow developers to build at higher densities in village and other designated growth areas.

Other Related Approaches

Maximum Density with Maximum Lot Size Requirements

Similar to the Conservation Subdivision, ordinances that combine Maximum Density with Maximum Lot Size have the potential to protect agricultural districts from being divided up into large lots and the resulting sprawl. For example, a subdivision ordinance requiring a density of 1 unit / 10 acres and a maximum 1.5 acre per new lot means the subdivision of a 30 acre parent lot would result in two new 1.5 acre lots, while the remainder (90%) of the parent lot is protected for farming. The same siting considerations as for conservation subdivision applies.

Conservation Limited Development

In certain situations, towns may consider limited development projects as a farmland protection tool. If funds are not otherwise available to finance purchase of the development rights or outright protection of the land through a purchase in fee simple, a town might consider purchasing farmland in fee simple and carving out one or more lots on the less valuable agricultural land, preferably along road frontage so as not to adversely impact the utility and management of cropland units. The lot(s) can then be sold for development and a conservation easement placed on the remaining land to preserve it for agricultural uses. The protected farmland can then be sold or retained by the town and rented to local farmers. In many cases limited development projects can allow towns to recover some or all of the initial costs of the land purchase.

Welcome to the Agrihood!

An agrihood is a type of planned community that integrates agriculture into a residential neighborhood. The purpose is to facilitate food production as well as provide green space, recreation, aesthetics and value for a community. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) defines agrihoods as “single-family, multifamily, or mixed-use communities built with a working farm or community garden as a focus.”

Inspired by a growing body of evidence that developments centered on working farms have a positive effect on human health, environmental sustainability, and real estate performance, Agrihoods: Cultivating Best Practices by ULI identifies strategies to aid developers and their partners in planning, creating, and operating single-family, multifamily, or mixed-use communities built with a working farm as a focus.

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