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Drafting Nature-Friendly Ordinances: An Ecological Checklist

February 2005

Citation: ELR 10100

Author: James M. McElfish Jr.

Throughout the United States, local governments have begun to recognize responsibilities relating to the health and function of the natural environments within their boundaries. Land use ordinances--including planning, zoning, and subdivision regulations--must in many places address issues of habitat conservation, ecological function, watershed management, and conservation of diverse plants and animals. Unfortunately, there has been a long-standing disconnect between biological understanding and land use regulation. Many elected officials and land use planners understand practical conservation requirements far less well than they do economic development strategies, community design, and fiscal policy.

But many local governments have begun to reconnect their interest in economic development with concern for healthy biological communities. Scientists have, at the same time, learned much about the requirements for functioning habitats. Land use planners and decisionmakers need this reliable information in order to be effective in writing ordinances to conserve and restore the lands and waters important for community well-being. The lessons of ecology and conservation biology can enable local decisionmakers to use familiar land use tools more effectively--to make development and redevelopment more "nature-friendly."

The colloquial term "nature-friendly" is really a standin for the technical term "biodiversity," which encompasses the "variety of living organisms and their populations, the genetic differences among them, and the natural communities and ecosystems in which they occur." The latter term provides a way of thinking systematically about the environment in which we live. By focusing on living organisms and systems, it avoids the pitfalls of prior concepts like "undeveloped land" or generalized references to "natural resources."

James M. McElfish Jr. is a Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), where he directs the Institute's Sustainable Use of Land Program. ELI's work on integrating biodiversity conservation with state and local laws governing development is supported in part by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. [Editors' Note: This Article appears, in part, in the book Nature-Friendly Ordinances: Local Measures to Conserve Biodiversity, by James McElfish, published in 2004 by ELI. The book can be ordered by either calling ELI at 800-433-5120 or logging on to the ELI website at http://www.eli.org.]

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