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Conservation Zoning


What is it?

Conservation Zoning refers to any districting mechanism within a municipality’s Land Use Bylaw that seeks to conserve natural areas, open space, natural infrastructure, or environmentally sensitive features. This may be accomplished by creating specific zones that keep permitted and discretionary uses to those that promote the maintenance of natural systems, or by adding an overlay zone that applies to numerous land use districts, but requires consideration of the natural environment in specific circumstances.

(please note that while ‘zone’ is a commonly-used term, in Alberta the technically correct term is ‘land use district’; for ease of understanding, this site uses the more readily understood term ‘zones’)

How can municipalities use it?

Municipalities can use Conservation Zoning to create general protection zones (e.g., Environmental Protection District, Open Space District, Resource Conservation District), special purpose zones (e.g., Conservation Easement District, Transfer of Development Credits District), or overlay zones (e.g., Riverine Protection Overlay, Environmentally Sensitive Area Overlay). In any of these cases, the purpose can be  protection of source water (groundwater, surface water, water quality), preservation of sensitive areas / habitats, maintenance of viewscapes, preservation of working lands, prevention of development on hazard lands that are ecologically valuable. The techniques can include limiting (or excluding) permitted uses, limiting lot coverage, establishing buffer zones, facilitating clustered development, lowering development density, or simply listing ‘conservation’ as a permitted use.

What are the advantages?

Conservation Zoning has the following advantages:

  • Encourages the protection of the natural infrastructure system

  • Provides ways to direct development away from the natural infrastructure system, such as through permitted uses, setbacks, and buffer zones

  • Compensation to the landowner is not required

  • Works within the existing zoning system to accomplish environmental goals

  • Can leave existing zoning in place, but add overlays, which may be more palatable

  • Triggers extra consideration of environmental values

  • Facilitates identification / inventory of environmentally sensitive features

What should you watch out for?

No tool is a silver bullet. There are factors to be take into consideration regarding Conservation Zoning, including:

  • Inventory and mapping of natural infrastructure system needed to inform conservation zones

  • May not address site-specific conditions

  • Landowners may push back as it can decrease allowable density on their land

  • Proponents can apply for re-zoning

  • Long lists of discretionary uses can erode the effectiveness of the zone

  • Can be a tendency for municipalities to locate utilities and industrial facilities in these zones

  • Unmitigated recreation can be a problem in these zones

  • ‘Open space’ means different things to different people

  • Additions / amendments to the Land Use Bylaw are can be complex

How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?

Conservation Zoning creates the ability to add natural infrastructure to the Land Use Bylaw. Such zoning encourages the inventory and assessment of natural infrastructure assets and their functions, can facilitate direct protection of these features, and can ensure ecologically-harmful developments are directed to more appropriate places.


Town of Fort Erie Environmental Conservation Overlay Zone – This document from an Ontario municipality uses the overlay to require an environmental assessment, then ‘re-zone’ any areas found to be sensitive to comply with the restrictions of an Environmental Protection Zone.

Municipal Powers, Land Use Planning, and the Environment: Understanding the Public’s Role – This paper by the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton covers a range of municipal / environmental issues, including a section on “Zoning for environmental protection and open-space conservation.”

Model Conservation Zoning District and Natural Resource Protection Standards - Lancaster County in Pennsylvania created this guide to help local governments plan for conservation. Although American, the structure of the Conservation Zoning District is instructive.

Portland Oregon Greenway Overlay Zones – Portland uses this overlay zoning to conserve natural, scenic, historical, economic, and recreational qualities of lands along Portland's rivers.

Overlay Zones – A fact sheet created by the Center for Land Use Education in the U.S. that gives an overview of overlay zones, including those for ecological protection. Though American in its details, the principles are locally applicable.

Conservation Area Overlay District Model Local Bylaw – Created by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the U.S., this template includes clauses for various conservation goals. The details are American, but the substantive information can be adapted for local use.

A number of Alberta municipalities use Conservation Zoning:

Did we miss something?

If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!

Thanks for helping us out!

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