Tools & Techniques>Land Development Options

Land Development Options
The following information was adapted from "Watershed Resource Papers" developed for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project by Langworthy, Strader, LeBlanc, & Associates, Inc.

Perhaps the most effective method of protecting open spaces is to adopt effective land development regulations for the zoning ordinance. These regulations may affect not only development projects with larger land areas and high intensity uses, but development occurring on individual lots as well.
Lot Widths
Development Setbacks
Open Space Development
Overlay Zoning

Lot Widths

Increasing lot widths can have the effect of separating the distance between homes to allow for a more "open" feeling. Other provisions for these lots could also include greater setback requirements and regulations minimizing urban vegetation (manicured lawns, flower gardens, etc.) and preservation of larger trees in areas visible from the roadway.

However, simply changing the district requirements would mean that the width requirements would apply to all roadways. Therefore, to make this regulation more effective, and to discourage development along the roadway, a companion change to encourage development throughout the site may be needed. This would require changing the applicable zoning requirements along certain defined roadways (generally county arterial roads).

This could be accomplished by decreasing the lot frontage required on roads that are part of the development project. Again, this does not imply that the site density needs to be greater, only that the lot widths for interior streets be less than what is required along the arterial roadway. Implementing these provisions requires adoption of an "overlay" district that would apply to residential zone districts along arterial roadways. Lots fronting on the interior streets would only be required to have the normal widths and setbacks.

Development Setbacks

Another effective provision could require a minimum development setback for residential or other projects of more than a single lot. The setback would require that no building or building envelope for the development could be nearer to the arterial roadway than 200-300 feet. (Obviously, this provision would be more difficult to apply to individual home sites.)

Other provisions applying to this setback area would be that no native or natural vegetation be removed from the setback, nor any grading or changes in topography occur, except that necessary for entrance roads.

The Ordinance could allow the Planning Commission to modify this requirement if the developer demonstrated that the clearing of existing vegetation or reduction of the setback would contribute significantly to the purpose and objectives of the development. Or, the Planning Commission could reduce the setback if existing landscaping provided a natural screen, or the proposed development provided a landscape screen. There should, however, still be some minimum setback.

This provision would also have to include some allowance for lot variations within the development so that the overall density permitted by the Ordinance could be maintained

Open Space Development

There could be further incentives for the clustering of residential units, also known as Open Space Development. Under this development technique the allowable density is based on a "parallel plan" showing reasonable and permissible development under existing zoning. While Open Space Development may increase the net density for a smaller area of a larger parcel, the overall density would still fall into the requirements of the existing zoning.

It would also allow for the preservation of significant natural features, provide open space for recreation, or allow the continuation of farming on interior land areas. To preserve the roadside character, some or all of the required open space could be placed abutting the roadway.

Currently, open space development in western Michigan is not particularly prevalent, or indeed, attractive to home buyers. One of the reasons that many buyers are looking in the rural areas is to avoid being too near other homes. Unlike eastern Michigan, where land values are generally higher, open lands are abundant in western Michigan and land prices are very reasonable.

However, there is a segment of the marketplace that can appreciate the value of preserving larger open spaces within a development. Therefore, offering of incentives to developers for using this development technique is appropriate. The basic incentive to which developers will most readily respond is an increase in the number of units which could be permitted over the base density calculated under the parallel plan. This is generally considered a development "bonus."

The amount of the bonus may vary depending on the nature of the development, and they may be used in combinations of one or more different incentives. As an example, incentives may include an increase in the number of units if:

additional open space is provided, beyond that normally gained in the lowering of individual lot sizes;
a community wastewater and/or domestic water system is used (avoiding the need for septic systems and individual wells);
recreational amenities are provided, such as tennis courts, club house, or other similar facility;
walkways, trails, or bike paths are included within the development; and/or
significant areas of active agricultural lands are preserved.

Another incentive, where appropriate, would permit commercial uses, usually subject to certain restrictions to limit size and effect on the area.

Overlay Zoning

Overlay zoning is the application of an additional set of regulations to an established zoning district or district. Areas commonly targeted by overlay zones include: floodplains, watersheds, environmental areas, lakeshore/shoreline, river corridors, high risk erosion areas, historic districts or economic revitalization areas.

The use of an overlay zone can be especially effective to ensure the consistent regulation of land uses within multiple zone districts, such as greenway or vegetative buffer requirements along a river.


Greenways are open spaces used to conserve and enhance natural and cultural resources. Greenways may also provide recreational opportunities, aesthetic benefits, and linkages for users between open space and recreational facilities. Greenways can:

- Tie park components together to form a cohesive park, recreation, and open space system;
- Emphasize harmony with the natural environment;
Preserve an attractive environment for residents, businesses, and visitors (It seems highly unlikely that the meandering Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park would be visited by thousands of people every year if its banks were lined with homes and businesses.);
- Allow uninterrupted and safe pedestrian movement between parks throughout the community;
- Protect areas inappropriate for development such as flood plains, wetlands, and steep slopes;
- Promote tourism and can enhance the local economy;
Foster a greater awareness and appreciation of historic and cultural heritage;
- Provide people with a resource-based outdoor recreational opportunity and experience;
- Promote a sense of place and regional identity;
Provide an effective and sensible growth management tool; and
- Enhance property values.
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