Preserving the river corridor
By CARSON HELFRICH
One of the key tenets of the Upper Delaware management planning process has been the reliance on the local conservation ethic and local land-use controls to protect the river corridor and quality of life. It was just this type of approach that preserved the river corridor in a condition that merited the National Scenic and Recreational River designation back in 1978.
Development pressure has increased substantially from levels prevailing before the designation, and local efforts for land conservation are now even more important. So what are some of the options available and how might they work along the Upper Delaware?
A good first step is to recognize that all land cannot, and probably should not, be preserved. One of the characteristics that make the corridor so attractive is its strong sense of community, and without reasonable and managed residential and commercial development, the community in the corridor cannot remain viable. Instead, energy should be focused on those areas most critical to maintaining the integrity of the corridor. A process of identifying these areas has recently been initiated by the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, National Park Service and others.
Federal acquisition in the Upper Delaware Corridor is limited to 124 acres, though the designation does authorize federal acquisition in cases where local land-use management ordinances do not provide adequate protection. But public ownership is neither the only, nor necessarily the most effective, alternative. Given the limited quantity of local, state and federal funding, public ownership is really not an option for the long-term conservation of the river corridor, even if land were offered by willing sellers.
But many landowners in the corridor are committed to maintaining their land in its natural state and may be willing to place a conservation easement on the parcel irrespective of compensation. Federal income tax and estate tax incentives may benefit some of these landowners. Local and county officials, the Upper Delaware Council and the National Park Service should actively promote the idea of conservation easements and work with land trusts to ensure that all willing easement donors are accommodated.
Local land-use controls, particularly zoning, can also be used to conserve open space and maintain community character. However, zoning, which is intended to protect the public health, safety and general welfare, must be balanced against the protection of private property rights. Landowners must be afforded use of their property that is reasonable in the eyes of the courts. Local municipalities should incorporate into comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations provisions for conservation subdivision design and transferable development rights, and standards for the limitation of clearing of vegetation and development buffering.
The Scenic and Recreational River Designation and the River Management Plan provide a sound foundation for this approach. The recent zoning and subdivision amendments adopted by Shohola Township are good examples of a means of balancing conservation with property rights.
All conservation efforts can be best achieved via cooperation, particularly at the local municipal level. Inter-municipal planning enables municipalities to address, from a regional perspective, conservation issues, water quality, open land conservation and other community development concerns that transcend municipal boundaries. Damascus Township, Manchester Township and Oregon Township are currently developing a multi-municipal comprehensive plan that can lay the foundation for cooperative land use management. The Upper Delaware Council serves as an inter-municipal and interstate forum and all of the municipalities in the corridor should take full advantage of the opportunity for discussion and cooperation offered by participation.
In the end, it will be a combination of informed actions of individuals, community organizations, and governments (all hopefully working together) that will finally determine if the experiment launched in 1978 will truly succeed.
[Carson Helfrich is the owner and principal of Community Planning and Management of Paupack, PA. He served as a part-time township manager for 17 years and as the first Pike County Planning Coordinator for 8 years. He is currently the president of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy.]
This bi-weekly column is a part of a valley-wide initiative to encourage an engaged citizenry. For a complete archive of visioning statements and for more about the visioning initiative visit upperdelaware.com.