What if we could anticipate where subdivision development was most likely to occur before the bulldozers arrived? What if the patterns of rural sprawl could be modeled and the information used preemptively by town planners and conservation organizations? What if we knew not only the location of the most significant resources to preserve in our landscapes and communities, but also which of these places were most vulnerable to inappropriate development? What if there were tools to help quantify how much land and water conservation was required for these vital resources to remain viable, as well as how to develop properties where they occurred to minimize impacts on what made them significant for conservation? What would that be worth?
The Litchfield Hills Greenprint has all of these capabilities. Among the cutting edge innovations of this program are predictive models that identify properties with increased risk of residential subdivision and natural areas that are most vulnerable to fragmentation by residential infrastructure. We assessed every unprotected parcel of land greater than 50 acres in 25 towns in northwest Connecticut - 1,700 properties in all. This is the same sized land unit used by luxury developer Toll Brothers to identify "good ground" for its subdivisions.
We evaluated each property based on certain attributes that made it more attractive for this kind of development, as well as it proximity to supporting infrastructure, building constraints, actual zoning, the desirability of the town in which it occurs and other market factors. We did a similar analysis for every intact natural area greater than 200 acres and examined factors that might lead to a poorly sited house on a long driveway breaking up contiguous habitats into smaller fragments. A panel of technical advisers, including friendly Realtors and real estate developers, informed the development of the model and the weights given to each of its criteria.
Applying the results of this analysis to maps of priority resources for conservation, town plans of conservation and development, farmland cover or critical habitat maps, we are able to filter out those areas that could be developed but are of lesser priority for conservation and those that because of low marketability or limited development potential are at reduced risk of near-term conversion to developed land. What remains is ground-truthed with local conservation groups, open space committees, and land use planners to give a fine-scale understanding of the threats and opportunities that apply to the parcels and areas identified by our model that were both significant for conservation and at increased risk of development or fragmentation.
With this information in hand, we and our conservation partners can be proactive in our land protection activity, building positive relationships with key land owners before they start talking to their realtors, and quantifying goals not only for the amount of land we hope to protect but the overall quality of what we conserve. Larger, sprawling towns can adopt transfer of development rights or TDR policies that reward developers who place permanent protection on lands where communities which to discourage development and allow denser development in places where they wish to encourage it. Best of all, using this approach helps to prioritize the most vulnerable places for conservation rather than picking away opportunistically at the more than 200,000 significant acres identified across the Litchfield Hills.
To date, the Litchfield Hills Greenprint has been providing its baseline data at no charge to land trusts and communities across the region. Those who support the Greenprint's work through their donations enable us to keep providing their local conservation organizations and towns with powerful conservation tools and the means to increase the pace and quality of conservation activity across the Litchfield Hills.
And the value of these partnerships? Priceless.