Municipal Partnerships Help to Achieve Balanced Communities

39 years of experience has taught Berks Nature that the most effective way to influence conservation decisions (related to land use, water protection, etc.) is to proactively work in the community and affect policy at the municipal level. By proactive, we mean encouraging each community to think about what natural resources are important to them now. Identify these places now, not when they see a bulldozer sitting on the property. If we proactively build relationships with residents and municipalities we can help them identify those natural resources that they want protected, but often take for granted will never change. We strive for balance by promoting sensible growth while protecting the important conservation and agricultural values of these areas.

This philosophy has served our non-profit organization and our many conservation projects well over the years. As a land trust, we have the expertise to assist landowners and municipalities in many types of land transactions to help maintain the special character of Berks County. As a partner, we have the leadership skills and ability to develop municipal partnerships to achieve many conservation projects.

In Berks County we have 73 different municipalities making important decisions related to our land use, which directly affects the future of our landscapes that give our community character. Communication and partnerships among these municipalities, school districts, corporations, and the involvement of individual residents have blossomed over the past year. The following is a sampling of recent municipal partnerships in Berks County that serve to help maintain open space (we encourage other communities in Pennsylvania to develop similar partnerships):

Permanent Land Protection: Brecknock Township has an “out of the box” approach to land protection. The rural township sub-contracted with Berks Nature real estate staff to work with landowners to acquire conservation easements on important landscapes in their community – in this case trails and farms. For the township, this was an important investment of protecting several hundred acres of open space that will provide benefit for many generations to come. For Berks Nature, we were introduced to many landowners and we were reimbursed by the municipality for our investment of time and resources in the project. This proactive model can be replicated in any community. In addition, the County of Berks implemented a land protection program in Pike Township in which 8 different landowners sold their development rights (conservation easement) in 2011 – the County and the Township matched the funds necessary for the project and Berks Nature acted as project administrator utilizing our expertise as a land trust.

Tool to Measure Progress: Numerous conservation projects and programs are in existence in Berks County, but until 2009 there was no measurement tool in place to help set goals and measure our progress as a community. Berks Nature implemented the State of the Environment in Berks program to achieve this goal. It is a baseline report, updated annually that measures 25 important indicators of the environment. How much land needs to be protected? How many miles of streams are impaired? How many public water supplies are there? Are they protected? How many recreational resources exist and how accessible are they? How much land is impervious? These, and many other indicators, are addressed in this program. It is an outstanding tool for municipalities and residents who wish to become engaged on a local level. Learn more and see the data at Better yet, replicate a similar program in your community!

Conservation Zoning: Berks County Planning Commission established a Conservation Zoning Incentive Program (CZIP) that provides technical and financial assistance to municipalities to enact effective conservation zoning regulations to protect natural resource areas such as steep slopes, riparian buffer regulations, and new development clustering. Currently, 10 municipalities have Conservation Zoning Compliant Standards, and 4 are in the process of completion. As a non-profit partner, Berks Nature attended many municipal meetings to help assist the townships in qualifying for this important CZIP program.

Water Supply Protection: In order to protect water wells and public health, municipalities set ordinances that regulate land use activities near wells – in our community, several municipalities have also created a source water protection plan to take further responsibility in protecting their special water resource. Kutztown Borough created such a plan, and it details the steps needed to protect their water supply. A large partnership in the Kutztown area was initiated in 2009 with a simple goal: protect the water supply. This involved the Borough (including the EAC), Berks Conservancy, Kutztown University, Kutztown School District, and the Maidencreek Watershed Association. Investment by the Borough, the local community, and several state grants has already resulted in the following: permanent protection of land surrounding the wellhead properties; establishment of a wellhead buffer area around the borough wells including the planting of 1500 native trees; a recreational trail along borough and school district property that leads to an educational observation deck overlooking the wellhead properties; 10 educational tree planting days involving youth (including the entire middle school population); and further significant investment upstream by landowners and partners to implement additional best management practices on nearby farms.

Municipal Networking for Conservation: Communication focused on conservation issues between municipalities in Berks is critical. Berks Nature gathered feedback from the community, including the 16 Environmental Advisory Council’s (EACs), and identified a need for improved communication. Shortly thereafter Municipal Networking for Conservation was introduced. Municipal Networking for Conservation involves quarterly events for municipalities and a special digital Enews for this targeted audience to share important news. This is designed to engage municipalities in educational discussions and projects that will encourage local conservation. Municipal managers, elected officials, planning commissions, and environmental advisory council members all attend – and nearly each of the 73 municipalities in Berks has been represented at at-least one event over the past 18 months. Berks Nature hosts these events and enews with the involvement of many local partners.

Berks County is fortunate to have the leadership of a strong Planning Commission dedicated to land use issues; an Ag Land Preservation Program ranked 1st in the state and 3rd in the nation; municipalities open to out-of-the-box land use projects; and a local land trust (Berks Conservancy) dedicated to maintain the rural character of our community. The protection of our open space is a priority – open communication and partnerships will allow the protection of these landscapes to continue – a balanced community is a healthy community.