Protecting Our Places: Economic and Environmental Benefits of Conservation Subdivisions

Western North Carolina is feeling a growth spurt. Many people around the country have become aware of our secret, that Asheville and the surrounding communities are a wonderful place to live and play. 

The downside result of that to our local environment and water resources is that many people are moving here and the population is rapidly growing. People need a place to live, so the development boom is leading to many new subdivisions being constructed in areas that are either environmentally sensitive, on lands bordering our waterways, or on the steeper areas of our mountainous environment.

Most of these new subdivisions are being built in the way developers have always done it. Conventionally designed residential subdivisions are characterized by the division of the entire tract of land into houselots and streets with limited common space. The common space is usually limited to the minimum areas required for the avoidance of wetlands, streams, steep slopes, floodplains and stormwater-management areas. These subdivisions have limited areas to walk or recreate because most of the land has been cut up and parceled out to the individual landowners for their private lots. The result is that most of the land becomes paved over, built upon or converted into lawns. Much of the landscape is also planted with lawn grasses and nonnative trees and shrubs.

At Olivette Riverside Community and Farm agrihood, woodlands border the French Broad River in a protected corridor. Photo courtesy of RJ Taylor.

Both Buncombe and Henderson counties have recognized the value of a more environmentally friendly development design in their reviews of subdivision proposals. In Buncombe County, a Conservation Development is a subdivision option which allows for the preservation of conserved open spaces and farmland within the footprint of the subdivision. These Conservation Developments limit the disturbed areas within the developed landscape and tend to prioritize the protection of ridgetops, woodlands, floodplain and wetland areas, landslide hazard areas, active agriculture lands, open space and other environmentally sensitive areas. For proposed subdivisions of a size at least 15 acres, various permitting benefits are provided to the developer if 50 percent of the overall tract can be preserved in an open space form. Agricultural lands that remain active to agricultural production count double in this calculation. 

Subdivisions being developed in the more suburban areas of Western North Carolina can take advantage of these county benefits and provide their residents with that natural setting adjacent to their residential homesites. 

Agrihoods such as the Olivette Riverside Community and Farm in Woodfin have already included active farmlands into their subdivision design. Residents of that community will get the pastoral setting of rural agriculture production and also take advantage of the community supported agriculture (CSA) shares that allow them to purchase subscriptions to the farm’s locally grown seasonal produce. That is in addition to the enjoyment that a serene farm setting provides to their neighborhood as opposed to looking into someone else’s backyard. 

Subdivisions such as High Hickory in Swannanoa and Couch Mountain in Arden are designed to avoid development on the more visible mountaintop areas, and have set aside those portions of the land for nature preserves and natural surface trail systems.

There are distinct economic advantages to utilizing a conservation design for the development of residential subdivisions. These include:

  • Review periods often proceed more smoothly since the designers have usually taken into account many of the concerns that the city or county planning departments would be working to resolve, therefore avoiding many of the disputes and conflicts over design.
  • An opportunity to reduce the infrastructure engineering and construction costs for single-family lots and multifamily units. The layout is clustered and more compact, often more like a village layout. There are often fewer waterway and wetland crossings, there are fewer linear feet of roadways and less pavement, the costs of stormwater-management facilities are lessened, and shorter electrical and water-utility lines are needed due to the more compact layouts.
  • An opportunity to market this sort of development for an environmentally oriented community. The presence of woodlands, stream and wetland-preserve areas, wildlife meadows and active farmland are all amenities that can be promoted in the marketing of the subdivision. Also, greenways and walkable corridors in the subdivision are desirable amenities on open spaces in these subdivisions; especially if there are connections into greenway corridors in the larger community and neighboring cities.
  • Conservation subdivisions have been documented to appreciate in value faster than their counterparts in conventional residential developments. 
  • The presence of natural and recreational areas within these conservation subdivisions help to reduce the demand for public open spaces, parklands, recreational areas and other areas for the local governments’ requirements. This will also be an attractive factor to local plan reviewing bodies at the city and county levels.

In addition to these advantages, there are numerous environmental and ecological benefits being provided through the protection of undeveloped and open space lands within a residential development. Sensitive ecological areas such as streams, wetlands, mature forests, native meadows, and wildlife corridors are being avoided in a good conservation development design. These subdivisions tend to shed less stormwater than the conventional subdivision design and the natural landscape provides a buffer to filter runoff before it reaches rivers and streams. The naturally vegetated buffer zones absorb stormwater, and the overhanging forest cover provides shade and maintains cooler temperatures for aquatic areas in the summer.

Protection of the waterway corridors, sensitive habitats and vistas in a Conservation Development fits nicely with the green-certified homes in our communities. The clustering of the homesites in the buildable environment is often paired with stormwater management, low-impact development and use of native plantings. Subdivision areas with a natural feel and environmentally smart designs are very desirable and therefore very marketable to residents of Western North Carolina. The Planning and Zoning departments with Buncombe County and Henderson County can provide more details about these development options for developers.

Land trusts like RiverLink are working with a number of private development companies on some of these Conservation Subdivisions around the Asheville area. By accepting conservation easements on open space and natural areas within these Conservation Developments, land trusts are helping to make the built environment of our new residential communities more enjoyable. The conservation easements also protect the integrity of our adjacent waterways which receive the runoff from these developed areas where we live. 

RJ Taylor is the land resources manager for the nonprofit RiverLink. He has collaborated with numerous conservation developments to protect the natural features within these innovative subdivisions, and is actually a founding resident of one such community in Swannanoa. Connect with RJ at

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 48-49 of the 2020-2021 edition of the directory.