Getting Started


Conservation subdivisions can be a powerful tool to protect a municipality's unique natural resources, preserve important open space areas and views, and build out the local trail and sidewalk system without spending any public funds. In order to reap these benefits, municipalities should have an understanding of their vision for these three elements, and this vision should be established within planning documents. The Conservation Subdivision ordinance can refer to these plans to require targeted and enhanced protection and preservation during the development process, and strategically build trails and sidewalks that align with the larger vision for connectivity within the municipality and region.

Natural Resource Area Inventory

Perhaps the biggest benefit of conservation subdivisions is their ability to protect the vitality of natural resources through the development process. Therefore, understanding where the most sensitive and important natural resources are in your municipality is the first step to ensure the most important natural resource areas are being protected through development proposals. Most municipalities have a natural resources inventory in their Comprehensive Plan and/or Open Space, Environmental Resources, and Recreation Plan. Chester County also identifies regionally significant natural resource priority protection areas in Landscapes3. These resources, as well as others, can be found on Chester County's interactive map of natural resources.

Ordinance Inventory of Natural Resource Protections

Many municipal zoning ordinances protect natural resource areas like woodlands and wetlands by limiting disturbance to some extent. Municipalities should review their ordinances to understand what resources are already being protected, and to what extent. This Chester County Planning Commission maintains an inventory of these ordinance protections, so municipalities can contact CCPC to discuss their ordinances and how they protect natural resources.

Update the Comprehensive Plan

Municipalities should update their Comprehensive Plan every ten years. Comprehensive Plans can identify areas where conservation subdivision designs are proposed in relation to the land use map. Plans can also identify the most important parts of specific properties for preservation to create a connected open space system that works well as a whole as conservation subdivisions occur.

Adopt or Update the Official Map

The parcels, or portions of parcels, where conservation subdivisions are permitted or proposed as identified within the comprehensive plan can be added to an official map. Official maps can also designate areas where natural resource protection is most important, areas for future conservation or agricultural easements, and/or future park land. For examples of official maps that identify future open space opportunities, see Chester County Planning Commission's inventory.

Open Space and Trail Planning

Many municipal comprehensive plans or open space, environmental resources, and recreation plans designate desired future open space, greenways, and trail connections. Understanding the existing and desired open space infrastructure is a central aspect of Conservation Subdivision provisions because municipalities can ensure this network is incorporated into development proposals.

Sewer Service Planning

A municipality's Act 537 plan should take into consideration the location of potential conservation subdivisions, planning for where municipal sewage lines should be extended and where package plants serving just the development would be expected to go.

Developing the Ordinance

Although this guide provides model language for Conservation Subdivision ordinance provisions, municipalities are strongly encouraged to consult with a planning consultant and/or solicitor to develop or modify their ordinance.

Assess Existing Ordinance

Most municipalities in Chester County have some form of cluster or conservation subdivision ordinance within their code, so the process of developing an ordinance may begin with assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the existing ordinance. Questions to assess an existing cluster or conservation subdivision ordinance include:

Identify Policy Basis

A municipality should consult its comprehensive plan to identify policies that give direction to the conservation subdivision ordinance and help define its goals and intent. A municipal open space, environmental resources and recreation plan may also indicate areas of the municipality with sensitive natural resources or that are priorities for preservation.

Review the model ordinance and other municipalities' ordinances

Differences in policies and priorities create a wide variety in cluster or conservation subdivision ordinances. This guide provides a model ordinance for conservation subdivisions that can be adjusted based on a municipality's preferences and unique environment, but there are also dozens of local examples that municipalities can reference.

Amend the Zoning Ordinance

Specific area, bulk and lot requirements (density, open space minimums, required protection areas), and the zoning districts where conservation subdivision development will be permitted should be identified. Use this design guide and ordinance elements discussion to craft an ordinance that meets the municipality's policy objectives.

Amend the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance

Design standards are addressed in the subdivision and land development ordinance. Regulations should strongly recommend the submission of a voluntary sketch plan to encourage a discussion between the applicant and the municipality early in the application process to ensure that preservation goals drive the design of the development

Seek Out Additional Resources