OPEN SPACE PLAN
Open space is an important asset, performing a variety of functions essential to sustaining and enhancing a community as a desirable place to live and work. Open space protects the quality and quantity of surface and ground water resources, guides development and growth, preserves natural resources, shapes community character and provides land for outdoor recreation.
While most people understand the important role that the "built" infrastructure (housing, schools, roads, utilities) plays in supporting human needs, the value of open space is often overlooked. During the development review process, the preservation of open space is often only considered after other zoning and site design standards have been met. It is usually too late at that point, however, to reap the many benefits of good open space planning.
Since development has already consumed much of the land within Voorhees, and with the pressures of continued development working against it, it is apparent that there is a critical window of opportunity in the next few years to preserve some of the remaining undeveloped land as open space. Any attempt by the Township to acquire developable land for preservation as open space, however, must be predicated on just compensation to the owner of the property. A goal of the open space plan is, therefore, to achieve the preservation of open space without jeopardizing the property owner's constitutional rights.
To be most effective, the preservation of open space needs to be undertaken, not at the expense of, but in conjunction with residential and commercial development. By employing appropriate land use planning strategies, the Township can enhance future development by proactively planning for open space, and not retroactively trying to fit it on the leftover pieces.
Open space planning is an effective method of preserving the integrity of important natural systems, and maintaining a feeling of openness and space in the midst of developed areas. It allows development to occur without overwhelming the sense of place and the qualities that have evolved to make Voorhees a desirable place in which to live.
To achieve the goal of preserving appropriate open space areas throughout the Township, the following objectives have been established in the Goals and Objectives section of this Master Plan update.
Ensure that open space planning plays an important role in developing the character, location, magnitude and timing of growth and development in the Township.
Give priority to preserving large contiguous tracts of forests and lands containing unique areas of environmental sensitivity.
Identify and protect the habitats of threatened and endangered species of wildlife and vegetation. Control the character, location and magnitude of growth and development in and adjacent to such habitats to avoid direct or indirect impacts on threatened or endangered species.
Promote and encourage the protection of privately owned tracts of open space, wetlands or forest lands through easement purchase, deed restrictions, and other appropriate planning techniques.
Locate open space land as close as possible to the populations they serve, and encourage passive public recreational use of such lands, where appropriate.
The Township's open space standards should require that the natural amenities and unique features of a site be retained and incorporated into the open space system. Natural features add substantially to the attractiveness and harmony of the development, and preservation of fragile areas in their natural state provides numerous advantages for both the development and the community.
With notable exception of the approximately 210 acre Beagle Club Woods on KressonGibbsboro Road, much of the municipallyowned open space in the Township consist of stormwater management facilities and buffers, typically occurring in pockets throughout residential developments, and not as large, contiguous parcels. In addition, similar types of open space areas, owned by individual homeowners associations, are also located throughout the Township.
Table 51 lists tracts of land which were evaluated for their value as open space. Each tract was classified as having a high, medium or low priority for open space preservation. Priorities were determined by taking into account environmentally sensitive areas, recreation potential, zoning, adjacent land uses, and the proximity to existing protected areas. Generally, large undeveloped tracts which do not contain significant environmental constraints and are available for development, were given the highest priority for open space preservation. These properties are likely to be lost without the implementation of an open space planning process. Conversely, the
preservation of tracts containing largely environmentally sensitive areas were given a lower priority, since the development potential of these parcels is somewhat limited by stringent State environmental regulations.
There are two basic methods by which the accumulation of open space can be achieved. The first method involves the implementation of land use planning strategies which are authorized by the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). The second method involves the acquisition of easements, development rights, or the outright fee simple purchase of lands.
The most effective method of preserving open space, both from a cost and planning perspective, is the use of creative land use strategies which result in the development of more compact communities. By implementing strategies such as clustering, the same number of units can be built in less area. Consequently, the amount of open space land in the Township will increase at virtually no cost to the taxpayers.
Land use planning strategies can directly influence the intensity, extent and type of land use development in the Township. By working with developers of vacant lands, the Township can, in the process of land subdivision and site development planning and review, influence the size, shape and quality of open space that is set aside and preserved.
The following open space related questions are to be considered when evaluating proposals for new development:
Is there a network of functional open space integrated into the site plan?
Is the proposed open space being left in its natural state?
Does the proposed open space area relate to other municipallyowned open space?
Is the proposed open space area sufficient in terms of area, dimensions and location?
Are there other areas of the site appropriate for designation as open space?
Are provisions for maintenance of the open space adequate?
Can proposed development be designed more compactly to provide more usable open space?
Cluster development is a planning technique that permits increased building density in one area in exchange for no development in another area. Overall densities, however, remain the same as permitted by the zoning requirements, and the undeveloped land is preserved as open space. Clustering enables a developer to concentrate units on the most buildable portion of the property, preserving natural drainage corridors and environmentally sensitive areas as open space. The
developer's costs are less, since only the portion of the site to be developed needs to be cleared and graded, and less infrastructure is needed. In addition, the Township's maintenance costs are reduced, because offewer streets and more compacted infrastructure.
Clustering reflects a compromise between the private developer and the community; with the developer agreeing to preserve some of the land as open space in return for the right to use the development potential of the preserved land in the portion of the property to be developed. For example, under conventional zoning, a property owner with 100 acres zoned at one unit per acre would be able to construct 100 homes throughout the 100 acre tract. Under a clustering plan, the same property owner may construct 100 homes on 30 acres and leave the remaining 70 acres as open space.
The Municipal Land Use Law authorizes the use of cluster development for planned commercial developments, planned industrial developments, planned unit developments, and planned unit residential developments. To enhance the preservation of open space, the MLUL was amended in 1996 to authorize municipalities to pass ordinances allowing developers to meet minimum lot size and density requirements of planned developments by using offsite lands. In other words, one parcel of land may be preserved by transferring the density of development for which it is zoned, to another, noncontiguous parcel. As a result, commonly held property, whether it is located nearby or on the opposite side of town, may now be considered as part of one application, in those cases where the local ordinance allows cluster zoning and other forms of planning developments.
If done correctly, the Township would end up with the same buildout capacity as allowed under its present ordinance. The difference will be the concentration of development in a few areas of higher density development, offset by other areas that are preserved as open space.
To be most effective, the Township must adopt clear goals on density transfers. Land development regulations must be amended to include planned development density transfer provisions with clearly mapped sending areas and receiving areas, and simple and flexible design and development standards. Densities must be established in both the sending and receiving areas that are realistic in the marketplace.
Clearly, the implementation of creative land use planning techniques is the most cost effective and quickest means of providing for the preservation of open space. However, there are situations where acquisition is the only alternative of accumulating property for open space. Acquisition of property can take several forms, including conservation easements, purchase of development rights, private conservation organizations, as well as the fee simple purchase of lands.
A conservation easement is a legal tool that sets forth certain restrictions, or that grants certain rights on the use and development of property. Notice of the easement is recorded with the property deed, and may sometimes be referred to as a "deed restriction". Restrictions and rights granted by easements for open space preservation typically ensure that the open space area is not subdivided or developed in the future, access and use by the public will continue in perpetuity, and provisions will be made for the maintenance of the open space.
Easements may be purchased from the property owner or donated by the owner to an agency willing to hold them. Holding easements, particularly when an easement is donated, is a less expensive land protection tool than fee simple purchase of the land. The value of a conservation easement is generally calculated as the difference between the value of the land with no easement and the value of the land with the easement. Since the property which is subject to an easement is still owned by the landowner, the land is still subject to real estate taxes; however, property taxes may be reduced because the assessed value of the land may be lower because of the easement. When the property changes hands, the subsequent landowners continue to be bound by the easement.
Conservation easements are only as good as the commitment to enforce their terms. An easement agreement should define specific and enforceable restrictions on the property and provide for access by municipal officials to inspect the property, as well as an agreement about how any violations are to be rectified.
The purchase of development rights is a form of conservation easement where the difference between the value of the highest and best use of the land and the value of the land after the creation of an easement restriction, is paid to the property owner. The New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program is a form of conservation easement where the development rights to a parcel area purchased by the State, County and/or local government, and the property owner agrees to maintain the land in an agricultural use.
Private conservation organizations are non profit corporations that acquire, hold, and manage land for the preservation of natural diversity. New Jersey law allows these private organizations, also known as land trusts, to hold and manage land and easements without paying property taxes, provided public access is allowed. Generally, land trusts are interested in obtaining large areas of significant natural habitat, such as unusual ecosystems or threatened species, and representative ecosystems, such as wetlands, stream corridors, and aquifer recharge areas.
The first method of preserving open space that often comes to the mind of many people is the outright purchase of the land. This is the simplest method for all parties concerned, but can also be the most costly. A purchase price, based on an appraisal and establishment of a fair market value, is negotiated and agreed upon, and a transfer of full title of the property is made in exchange for the negotiated compensation. There are some variations, such as less than market value sale, where the property owner donates part of the sale price.
The biggest drawback to the fee simple purchase of property for open space is that it often quickly becomes evident that there is not adequate funds available to purchase every parcel slated for preservation. The fee simple purchase of land should, therefore, be used when other methods of preserving the land are less effective.
In addition to using general revenues generated from taxes collected by the Township, or general obligation bonds, there are sources of funding available to the Township for the preservation of open space.
State Green Trust funds, the county and municipal component of New Jersey's Green Acres Program, are available to help with the purchase of open space. The Green Trust Program makes low interest loans and grants available for the acquisition of land for public outdoor recreation or conservation purposes. Proposals which include acquisitions involving preservation of environmentally significant areas are eligible to receive assistance in the form of a grant for 25 percent of the cost and a low interest (two percent) loan for the remaining 75 percent of the purchase price. Since total requests for Green Trust funding normally exceed available funding, project selection is subject to a competitive ranking system.
In 1996, the Green Acres Program initiated a new funding category for land acquisition, the Planning Incentive Program. The purpose of this program is to simplify the application procedures for counties and municipalities which have enacted an open space tax, and have prepared an Open Space and Recreation Plan. Under this program, a local government can use its Open Space and Recreation Plan as its application for Green Trust funding (25 percent grant; 75 percent low interest loan). Once the Open Space and Recreation Plan is approved by the Green Acres Program, the local government can acquire open space without having to file separate
Additional information and approaches regarding Open Space Preservation Techniques and funding sources are provided in Appendix 1.