The following article is reprinted from STRATEGIES, the newsletter of the City Planning and Management Division of the American Planning Association. It appeared in their Fall 2007 edition, which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here.
PROTECTING CENTRAL OHIO'S MOST SENSITIVE WATERSHED
The Big Darby Accord
By Adrienne Joly, AICP, Senior Planner, Planning Division, City of Columbus, Ohio
Big Darby Creek, a state and national scenic river, is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse aquatic systems in the Midwest. The watershed is home to 38 state and federally listed endangered species and represents the largest undeveloped area in Franklin County, Ohio. Facing increased development pressure in recent years, the balance between growth and environmental stewardship is especially critical.
With ten jurisdictions in the watershed, previous planning efforts were fragmented along jurisdictional boundaries and unable to address watershed-wide issues. A new approach was needed and the member jurisdictions launched a ground-breaking, cooperative vision for this scenic and environmentally sensitive area's future. As a multi-jurisdictional watershed master plan, the Big Darby Accord is the first of its kind in central Ohio.
The Big Darby Accord planning area encompasses the 56,000 acres of the Big Darby watershed within Franklin County. Including the county, ten jurisdictions are located within or adjacent to the planning area. The city of Columbus is the sole provider of centralized sewer service and has historically required annexation as a condition of providing service. A long history of public mistrust and competing interests in the watershed led the city of Columbus to enact a moratorium on the extension of sewer and water service to the area in 2002. The Accord planning process was initiated to cooperatively develop a plan that preserves the ecology of the Big Darby Watershed while providing direction for responsible, managed growth.
Collaboration Drives the Process
The Accord planning process began in April 2005 and was funded jointly by the ten member jurisdictions with a participation agreement that clearly outlined roles and responsibilities.
For effective communication and decision making, the Accord created an internal structure of three key groups, a Group of Four (G4)subcommittee, a working group and a client group. The G4 included equal representation from each type of jurisdiction (county, city, township, suburban municipality) within the planning area. The working group included appointed representatives from each of the ten jurisdictions and other stakeholders. The client group of elected leaders of each of the jurisdictions met at critical points of the planning process for progress reports and feedback. These various platforms helped to guide the planning process, fostered input across all levels and provided a structure for efficient decision making. The Big Darby Watershed Master Plan utilized a systematic approach that can be applied to other watersheds. The approach combines a GIS resource-based analysis to identify environmentally sensitive lands, with water quality modeling of alternative land use scenarios, to develop a recommended land use plan and conservation strategy. With this methodology, existing landscape conditions and natural resources are the foundation of future land use alternatives. The modeling acts as a check, to ensure land use scenarios will sufficiently protect the habitat system and water quality of the watershed.
As a result of this planning process, many innovative concepts and ideas surfaced including:
- An offer by the city of Columbus to extend water and sewer service without the condition of annexation to a mixed-use town center.
- A water quality monitoring program at the watershed and site levels.
- A tiered approach to conservation with a watershedwide goal for the protection of 25,000 acres.
- The recommendation of low impact design techniques for development projects.
- A land use plan that recognizes by-right zoning.
The Plan in Action
Successful implementation of the Accord is dependent on the continued collaboration among the Big Darby partners. Since the plan was completed in 2006, six of the ten member jurisdictions have adopted the plan, representing 95 percent of the land within the planning area. Many of the short and mid-term actions identified in the plan have been completed or are underway, including:
The Big Darby Accord Advisory Panel
The Panel reviews development proposals within the watershed to verify compliance with the Accord's policies and standards, and renders a non-binding recommendation to the jurisdiction that has final approval authority. The multi-jurisdictional Panel consists of nine members appointed by jurisdictions that have adopted the Accord. The Panel provides an oversight function to ensure zoning and site development processes are fair and consistently applied in the planning area.
Each jurisdiction is incorporating the Accord's recommendations into their codes by codifying recommendations into a zoning overlay or integrating them into zoning resolutions so the policies contained in the Accord are enforceable at the local level.
The Accord's land use plan focuses development in a dense, mixed-use town center. The only portion of the planning area that will be serviced by central sewer, the town center, will be located away from the watershed's most environmentally sensitive lands. The Darby partners are pursuing a detailed master planning process for the town center. A consultant team is expected to begin work in early 2008.
Many aspects of the Accord, such as land acquisition, cannot be achieved until a steady revenue stream is available. The Accord recommends multiple funding sources including tax increment financing, a new community authority and developer contributions. The member jurisdictions are fine tuning revenue projections and creating the legal framework to implement the recommendations.
A New Spin on Regionalism
Often local governments want to tackle regional issues, but don't have the tools or are reluctant to surrender control to regional entities. The Big Darby Accord offers a model that accomplishes regional goals, such as improved water quality, but operates within the existing confines of local government. Extensive collaboration among jurisdictions is the driving force behind this approach. Participation agreements are executed for each implementation activity and different entities assume a leadership role for different tasks. This approach allowed the Big Darby members to develop a watershed master plan that meets the needs of ten distinct jurisdictions. Tools such as the multi-jurisdictional review panel and revenue sharing can be transferred to other watersheds. Challenges still exist but the opportunity to protect the Big Darby Creek has never been greater or more attainable, because of a commitment to work together to solve difficult, regional issues.