The environment, both urban and rural, is about to become a major focus in the future development of Lancaster County.

A new "green infrastructure" blueprint for the county's updated comprehensive plan proposes a bold new emphasis on preserving woods, waterways and open spaces as "vital to the health and well being of Lancastrians."

The 168-page "Greenscapes" plan envisions a partnership of county and local officials, along with the private sector, to create a network of natural areas and green spaces in rural, urban and suburban areas.

They would be connected by linear ribbons called greenways, usually along streams or ridges.

The plan sets a goal of buying, or preserving through easements, an average of 4,675 acres of open space annually over 20 years. That would total 146 square miles, or about 15 percent of the county's land area.

One aim is to try to reverse centuries of human activity that has degraded air and water quality in the county.

"Healing the landscape from three centuries of abuse will take both patience and perseverance," the plan says.

Though agriculture is seen as vital to the county's future, the plan suggests that some farmland on highly erodible slopes might best be returned to forests.

Hedgerows along the borders of farm fields would once again be encouraged. Putting up fences along streams to keep livestock out could dramatically improve water quality, the plan notes.

Towns could become more "green" with tree plantings, conveniently located parks, "living roofs," community gardens, backyard habitats and tinkered transportation systems that encourage more walking, bicycling and public transit over personal vehicles.

The plan seeks to protect remaining large blocks of contiguous undeveloped land in the Furnace Hills, on the Welsh Mountain and in the Susquehanna River Gorge. And it seeks to connect smaller natural areas with strips of greenways to insulate waterways, give people access to the outdoors and to provide highways for increasingly fragmented native plants and wildlife.

"We have some serious natural resources and water quality issues we have to deal with. Much of the plan involves the healing of our landscape," says Mike Domin, principal planner for the Lancaster County Planning Commission, which drew up the plan with help from consultants.

The County Commissioners are expected to vote on the document early next year after a public hearing. The Lancaster County Planning Commission has had two public meetings to gauge resident sentiment in drafting the plan.

The document does not estimate a cost for the land-protection effort, though the price certainly would be in the millions of dollars.

However, the plan notes there is "tremendous potential" to leverage funds from the private sector.

For example, PPL Corp. recently sold 3,500 acres along the Susquehanna to the nonprofit Lancaster County Conservancy, then donated the money back for a sustainable endowment fund.

Pennsylvania's nutrient trading incentive could be an inducement for farmers to sell or enhance land, and the state Resource Enhancement and Protection Program gives tax credits to farmers who implement conservation measures.

Also, the county should continue to pay for expanding regional parks and preserving natural lands that are open for public use, "Greenscapes" says.

Since 1992, the county has had a Regional Open Space Plan that primarily consisted of creating regional parks throughout the county for residents' recreational use.

The new plan, based on a model being used in much of Maryland and elsewhere, is much more ambitious and takes a holistic approach to protecting the county's remaining natural resources, which is deemed an essential quality-of-life issue.

The natural landscape is vital as part of the county's heritage and because it feeds the local economy, from farming to eco-tourism, the plan says.

Municipalities are encouraged to pass regulations to get developers to incorporate open space and save trees in new neighborhoods, and to channel growth to existing villages and not into rural areas.

On the priority list for protection are the few remaining areas of deep, or "interior," forest in the county that provide special habitat for native plants and some wildlife. Interior forests may be found in the Furnace Hills, Bowmansville Hills, Welsh Mountain and a small area on Texter Mountain in northern Lancaster County.

Also considered important are establishing -- in some cases re-establishing -- contiguous forest corridors so plants and animals can move between forests.

"We have so many fragmented forests that are so small and the only way to ensure their future is to see that they are connected," Domin said.

The best way to connect the scattered woods is through wooded corridors along streams and rivers, he said. "If not, we will just have these small isolated patches and for native plants and animals that's a problem and they probably won't survive because of the gene pool."

Seven major greenways are delineated along the Conestoga and Susquehanna rivers, Chiques Creek, Cocalico Creek, Conewago Creek, Mill Creek and along Mine Ridge in the southern part of the county.

Some of those corridors might be in areas that are currently farmed but perhaps shouldn't be because they are highly erodible, the plan states.

"We don't want to affect the livelihood of farmers themselves," stresses Domin. "We would have to work with each farmer to see if there is a program to offset their loss of income." The River Hills is one area with land questionable for farming.

A major recommendation in guiding green infrastructure on the local level is for each municipality to form an environmental education council. Currently, only Pequea Township uses the planning tool.

Leading the way on the county level would be a Lancaster County Green Infrastructure Coalition, made up of existing agencies, organizations and groups. The Lancaster County Conservancy has offered to coordinate the coalition.

The study and detailed maps are available online by going to the Lancaster County Planning Commission's Web site at

. Click on "Draft Green Infrastructure Plan."

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Copyright © 2008, Lancaster New Era, Pa.

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