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Exploring Land Developer Perspectives on Conservation Subdivision Design and Environmentally Sustainable Land Development

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Insight into land developers’ perspectives on alternative residential developments and the barriers they experience in trying to develop them can be crucial in efforts to change environmentally damaging low-density, large-lot, and automobile-dependent residential patterns. Using a semi-structured interview instrument followed by short surveys, I examined the views of 16 developers in Waukesha County, WI, USA, a county that has experienced significant development pressures and widespread implementation of conservation subdivision design. The land developer investigation focused on conservation subdivision design familiarity and implementation, and identified a number of barriers that developers experienced in implementing the design. While the majority of the developers appeared familiar with the design and had experience developing conservation subdivisions, their motivations for developing them varied, as did their on-site conservation practices. The barriers included the lack of land use regulations supporting the design, economic factors, community opposition, and a lack of knowledge about sustainable residential development practices. Strategies to promote more environmentally sustainable residential land development patterns include providing a more supportive institutional environment, enacting different regulations and guidelines for natural resources protection, and offering education on ecologically sound development and planning practices.

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  1. For a compelling argument, see Peiser (1990). Please note that in this article, developers’ roles in shaping the landscape are discussed in the context of the United States, where, unlike in many other countries, land use decisions are made primarily at the municipal level.

  2. Similarly, Wisconsin’s 1999 Comprehensive Planning Law highlights the use of cluster and conservation development techniques to preserve open land (Wisconsin Comprehensive Planning Law 1999).

  3. 1,125 acres (22 %) of all subdivision land qualify for primary conservation area consideration according to Arendt’s (1996) guidelines, and another 3,593 acres (69 %) qualify as secondary conservation areas, for a total of 4,718 acres (91 %) of all subdivision land. Primary conservation areas in these subdivisions predominantly comprise wetlands, and the secondary conservation areas predominantly comprise prime farmland. These subdivisions also contain significant natural resources, namely the region’s environmental corridors (as discussed later in the paper), which include part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The topography in these conservation subdivisions is representative of the entire county; 91 % of all land has a slope of less than 3 %, and no subdivision land has a slope of more than 15 %.

  4. For a comparative analysis, we paired 26 conservation subdivisions with 26 similar Waukesha County conventional subdivisions.

  5. Five developers were younger than 50 years of age, another five were between 50 and 59, and six were older than 60. Of the 12 participants who provided information about their experience, 2 had fewer than 10 years of experience, 1 had 10–19 years, 7 had 20–29 years, and 2 had over 30 years.

  6. Of the six companies for which respondents volunteered history information, two had been in business for 15 years or less, and four had been in business for at least 50 years. Between 1990 and 2005, one company had developed only one subdivision, six had developed 2–9 subdivisions, three had developed 10–19 subdivisions, and three had developed at least 20 subdivisions.

  7. In particular, Bowman et al. (2012) found that developers in Ames, Iowa were more interested in developing conservation subdivisions than conventional subdivisions. Developers ranked their interest in developing conservation and conventional subdivisions on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all interested) to 5 (very interested). The mean for conservation subdivisions was 3.6, while the mean for conventional subdivisions was 2.7.

  8. The term ‘environmental corridors’ refers primarily to the region’s environmentally sensitive and ecologically beneficial areas as identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the regional planning commission. For more information, please see Rubin and Emmerich (n.d.). Environmental corridors are the priority conservation areas as suggested by the regional planning commission.

  9. There were no golf course subdivisions in our sample of conservation subdivisions, but several offered recreation opportunities. While we did not delineate trails in subdivision COS, many of the subdivisions with environmental corridors appear to have trails incorporated into the design. In addition, two subdivisions have soccer fields, and one has tennis courts; these recreation facilities total about 8 acres.

  10. Only 7 of the 19 Waukesha County jurisdictions where conservation subdivisions have been built between 1990 and 2005 provide a density bonus. In these jurisdictions, the bonus can be as high as 30 % or six bonus lots.

  11. In Waukesha County there are no penalties for mass-grading in a subdivision; however, additional permits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for stormwater management might be required (personal communication, Waukesha County planner, 8 August 2013).

  12. Maintenance of the common open space as mown lawn was observed in about a quarter of these areas in Waukesha County subdivisions.

  13. As discussed earlier, a smoother review process has not materialized in many communities, including those in Waukesha County. Because of this and because the environmental success of conservation subdivisions has been mixed, a thorough empirical review of these posited benefits would be useful for scholars and practitioners.

  14. In addition, empirical evidence has been mixed for price premiums as well as appreciation and absorption rates (see Bowman et al. 2009; Hannum et al. 2012; Kopits et al. 2007; Mohamed 2006; Reichert and Liang 2007). Although we did not conduct an economic analysis to determine appreciation and absorption rates for Waukesha County conservation and conventional subdivision properties, a simple investigation of assessed values for 2009 did not show any statistical difference for average land and total values among the paired subdivisions (Göçmen 2014).

  15. In a modeled effort examining regional ecological consequences of land development, Conway and Lathrop (2005) compared different land use policies, including cluster development (a fundamental feature of conservation subdivisions). The model found that the policy option based on cluster development did not significantly alter the regional development pattern in two watersheds in southeast New Jersey that recently experienced significant land conversions in the rural–urban fringe.

  16. Other suggested techniques included shared septic systems, using fewer lighting structures to decrease light pollution, increased density, and better landscaping.

  17. Even though we did not specifically ask developers about their experience developing in urban as opposed to suburban and exurban areas, I suspect that their experiences in developing residential land in the suburban and exurban areas in Waukesha County significantly influenced their familiarity with transit-oriented or mixed-use developments, as well as their responses to that particular interview question. While no developer mentioned transit-oriented developments in response to this question, earlier in the interview, one developer stated, “A conservation subdivision should look toward some sort of public transport in the future. You need to plan density so that it makes sense to have some sort of public transport. Nobody is doing that. Nobody is preserving meaningful open space.”

  18. LEED-ND uses a rating system to evaluate a range of proposals and requires that land development proposals meet a number of criteria, including some based on location and neighborhood design. Proposals receive points toward certification based on items such as protection of prime farmland and habitats (U.S. Green Building Council n.d.).

  19. In addition, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Urban Land Institute (in particular, see McMahon 2010), the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, in particular, see SEWRPC 2010), and the University of Connecticut—Extension has provided similarly valuable information on alternative residential development techniques.

  20. Even though the geographic scope and the sample size are limited, this study represents the largest sample of developers among studies that have investigated developer perspectives on CSD through interviews.

  21. Our interview instrument did not include a specific question regarding who designed the subdivisions. According to information volunteered by 12 of the 16 interviewees, 4 usually hire a designer, planner, or an architect; 5 hire an engineer; and 2 hire a planner and an engineer to design the layout of the subdivision. One developer emphasized that his company never hires a designer, planner, (landscape) architect, or engineer; rather, he always designs the subdivision himself. A couple of the developers highlighted the importance of hiring a planner as opposed to an engineer because they believed that engineers are primarily interested in getting the maximum yield for the subdivision, whereas planners are more interested in preserving the subdivision’s most significant resources.


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I thank Adam Levine for assistance with the land developer interviews, and Jim LaGro, Steve Ventura, Julie Steiff, and four anonymous reviews for their valuable feedback on an earlier version of this article. The work presented here was funded by the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute and The Office of the Provost.

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Correspondence to Z. Aslıgül Göçmen.

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Göçmen, Z.A. Exploring Land Developer Perspectives on Conservation Subdivision Design and Environmentally Sustainable Land Development. Environmental Management 54, 1208–1222 (2014).

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