Does zoning contribute to forest parcelization? – Part 2

Michigan forestry professionals recently met to discuss current causes and research about forest fragmentation. Zoning is one of the factors that can influence this issue, both negatively and positively.

Michigan’s forests are growing at a healthy rate, but in smaller and smaller parcel sizes. When forest land is divided and sold, a process called parcelization – managing the resource for forest products and wildlife – becomes more difficult.

Township zoning regulations are only one of many factors influencing forest parcelization. There are, however, local policies that can reduce the impact and help retain large parcels. Below are a few examples:

Purposeful planning in rural zones
In the past, rural zones were the default zone - any areas that were not residential, commercial or industrial. Uniform zoning was applied to the whole rural area, with little regard to natural characteristics. Some communities are now looking within their rural zones to identify areas that are the most productive, unique and contiguous. Once identified, zoning tools can help retain large parcels while allowing limited residential splits.

A barrier to identifying productive, unique and contiguous areas used to be availability of low-cost maps and data. There are now many free online information sources that planners can access which provide excellent tools for townships to use.

Reducing large lot zoning
On the one hand, 5 to 10-acre minimum lot sizes are a significant factor causing forestland parcelization; on the other, many communities rely on large minimums in an attempt to maintain rural character and control housing density. Townships can still achieve rural character goals with smaller minimum parcel sizes combined with provisions limiting the total number of splits, clustering development. Some communities are using maximum lot sizes as a way to allow residential development, while keeping the remainder of the property in a large block.

Implementing conservation zoning
This technique provides landowners a menu of options for splitting rural parcels, and may give incentives for permanently reserving large parcels. One approach some communities use offers several choices for landowners. The first is the country estate option, which allows property to be split into large 25 to 40 acre pieces. The second alternative, called “sliding scale,” lets owners split off a relatively limited number of 1 to 2 acre parcels, keeping the parent parcel large. The original parcel size dictates the number of permitted splits. The final option, called conservation subdivision, permits greater parcel density, arranged in a way that keeps most of the property as permanently – dedicated open space that can be reserved as natural area, or as more intensively managed forest or agricultural land.

There are many other techniques for reducing forestland fragmentation including very large (greater than 20 acres) minimum parcel sizes, exclusive forestry districts, fixed and sliding scale formulas for limiting development, special use permits for non-forestry uses and combinations of these approaches.

Now is a great time for townships to re-think their zoning strategies for rural forested areas. For more information about these techniques, contact a member of the Michigan State University Extension Land Use Team.

See part one of this series: “Does zoning contribute to forest parcelization – Part 1"

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