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Buffers vs. Setbacks

Use of the terms ‘buffer’ and ‘setback’ can be confusing, especially since general usage can be different from municipal use. In general, a ‘buffer’ is something that forms a barrier or cushion between incompatible things, and a ‘setback’ is a physical distance something is placed back from something else.
However, in municipal planning, a ‘setback’ usually refers to the distance a structure needs to be from a property line, and in GIS (digital mapping), a ‘buffer’ is generally a consistent expansion beyond the footprint of a feature.
As a municipal tool for protecting natural infrastructure, the intent of buffers and setbacks is the same: to ensure a physical separation from a natural infrastructure feature so as to protect that feature or its function.
In this Toolkit, we distinguish the terms as follows:
  • A ‘Buffer Zone’ is focused on the natural feature, and is designated with reference to the feature. It is not specific to any particular adjacent land use activity. 
  • Setback Guidelines’ are focused on the adjacent proposed development activity, and gives that developer or builder a numeric distance they must be back from the defined edge of a feature.
Operationally, these can be employed as one undertaking; e.g., a buffer zone around critical wildlife habitat, that includes a specific distance by which adjacent development must be set back.
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