How to Work with Communities

How do you start a conversation about buffers?

Click here to download a PDF of this section’s text.

Working on buffer regulation at the municipal level is critical as it is local regulations that determine which buffers are protected and how well they are protected.

Whether you are a citizen, outreach professional, or elected official, there are things you can to do to prepare yourself for a productive, locally relevant conversation. The following tips emerged from BOB’s assessment of community perspectives in the Exeter-Squamscott subwatershed. It would also be helpful to refresh your understanding of how to navigate regulations or review the BOB team’s more extensive policy synthesis.

  1. Lay the groundwork: Ask yourself (and stakeholders you know): Who needs to be at the table for the conversation? What resources do the participants need to have on hand? What work has already been done?

  2. Begin with common values: Decisions related to buffers are often made in the context of broader societal and personal values. In BOB’s assessment of community perspectives in the Exeter-Squamscott subwatershedstakeholders identified several commonly held values that relate to efforts to conserve, restore, or manage buffers. These include:
  • Protection of property rights, privacy, and public health
  • Preservation of community character, including a sense of history, public areas for recreation, walkability, open space, town pride, engaged citizens and school system
  • Protection of the hydrological benefits of buffers (e.g., flood storage)
  • Connection of water to quality of life, which is manifested by access to water, views, and clean water for drinking water and recreation
  • Conservation of natural resources, including  wildlife (e.g., loons threatened by pollution) and forests
  • Enhancement of financial vitality that is linked to adjacent water bodies, i.e, how they make communities desirable places to live and do business, enhance property values, help sustain the tax base, and contribute to avoided costs

    Here are a few tips for learning more about community’s values when embarking on buffer-related work:
  • Review the community master plan and zoning ordinances to identify descriptions of values that can be connected to buffers.
  • Gather information about relevant past votes, e.g., related to funding for land conservation.
  • Conduct informal or semi-structured interviews with a variety of local stakeholders, Ask them to describe shared values and what they value most about living in the community.
  • Host a community dialogue or conduct focus groups to get more in-depth information.

The values you identify can inform the way you communicate about buffers. For example, you can connect the values you have identified to the benefits buffers provide, or you can identify options for buffer management that connect to and help protect these values.

  1. Define “buffer.” People often have different definitions for the word “buffer.” It’s important to clarify your meaning and assess whether education/discussion will be needed to arrive at a definition that is practical for the situation at hand and consistent with the regulatory framework in New Hampshire. See BUFFER BASICS for more information.
  2. Locate existing buffers: Buffers throughout a subwatershed have the potential to preserve valued services, whether they are adjacent development or in forested, densely vegetated areas. Using these maps, you can start to identify where buffers are located in each community and the services they provide.
  3. Ask them (and yourself) why buffers?  An initial conversation about why a community wants to address this issue will help with goal setting later on. Some questions to ask:
  • What values does the community have that buffers can help to enforce? (CLICK HERE to explore the values identified in the BOB Community Assessment.)
  • Which environmental issues do you hope to address through the use of buffers?
  • What challenges have been encountered in the past with regard to buffers?
  1. Prepare to discuss potential barriers: CLICK HERE to explore some of the barriers Identified in the BOB Community Assessment; many of these were confirmed by a watershed survey of stakeholders.
  2. Some helpful tips: As you engage stakeholders in discussion, here are some things to keep in mind:
  • What resonates: Water quality, community benefits, clean water, space for children to play, financial connection, local level, and a shorter-term view.
  • What does not resonate as well: Habitat, wildlife, or the inherent value of nature.
  • Focus on successes and recognize positive impacts developers have had.
  • Clarify “buffers” and “setbacks.”
  • Show photos of buffers before and after restoration.
  • Use multiple avenues for communication, e.g., social media, posters in municipal offices.
  • Incorporate buffer-related topics into school curricula.
  • Use examples from other communities, unless stakeholders tell you they are not relevant!

Where are the important buffers?

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A buffer’s value is often linked to its capacity to provide specific services. (See table below.)  Visit the MAPS page to see where the buffers are in your community and which are more likely to be able to provide certain services. To determine which of these services are most important to your community may require some survey work or town public meeting sessions. CLICK HERE to consider how buffer services could link to the community values identified in the BOB Community Assessment.

Buffers provide an array of different of different benefits and the buffer’s attributes/make-up depend on the benefit you are trying to achieve. 

What are the options for protecting them?

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Buffers and other natural areas are not only effective ways of providing ecosystem services, they can be less expensive than engineered, structural solutions. For example, green infrastructure is estimated to be three to six times more effective in managing stormwater than structural, engineered best management practices per $1,000 invested. (See BOB’s coastal science literature review.Communities can protect buffers through land conservation, working to re-vegetate town owned buffer areas, or adopting new or stricter land ordinances.

Once communities have decided which services they value, there are a range of buffer-related programs, policies, and regulations that could enhance the use of local knowledge and align the interests of private landowners with those values.

First, a community can employ innovative land use techniques as found in the Innovative Land Use Handbook or in RSA 674:21. These include timing incentives, cluster development and environmental characteristics zoning. To understand more about towns’ authority to use land use planning to protect buffers CLICK HERE

Secondly, a community can designate important wetlands as Prime Wetlands (RSA 482-A:15) and once the designation process is complete the wetland will get a state-level protected 100-foot buffer. 

The effectiveness of these policies is case-dependent and influenced by collective values, ecosystem services of interest, the level of landscape connectivity required to provide the services, and the magnitude and distribution of benefits and costs among landowners and the larger community.

(Download an overview of funding resources to support buffer conservation and restoration.)

Targeted Regulations, Education Programs, and Incentives

Communities can enact regulations or education programs that broadly target landowner behavior. While straightforward to administer, these can leave landowners bearing more of the management and opportunity costs for maintaining buffers. Or, given the characteristics and contexts of privately owned buffers, these regulations might fail to protect services of interests. While there are several ways to target land-use regulations, this could create higher administrative costs for the town.

If the number of landowners needed for conservation success is low and buffers providing high-quality ecosystem services can be easily targeted, then targeted incentives that encourage landowners to maintain buffers may be a better option. These could include payments for activities that maintain or improve ecosystem services, reduce the intensity of land use, or cease destructive land use altogether. Conservation easements—in the form of tax credits or deductions—are one such approach.

If many landowners need to be involved, then simple and non-targeted approaches may be more appropriate. Economic incentives that reduce land-use intensity, rather than eliminating all land uses, cost less and are much more likely to fall within conservation budgets.

Fixed Width Buffers

Many municipalities that enact local buffer regulations (in addition to those mandated by the state) require a fixed width buffer that can range from 25 to 250 feet, depending on the stream order. Fo more on buffer protection enacted at the municipal level in New hampshire, see the the 2015 Piscataqua Region Environmental Planning Assessment (PREPA).

Variable Width Buffers

Variable width buffers are another way to meet ecosystem service targets in situations when it is not feasible to maintain a fixed width buffer. These include areas where adjacent land use and site and stream condition make a fixed width buffer infeasible. They also include places where restoration is not possible, for example, where habitat loss has led to a fragmented or asymmetrical buffers. Variable width buffers, specifically larger widths, may also be employed to offset such fragmentation or to protect highly-valued areas  or those with steep banks, sparse vegetation, or highly erodible soils.

CLICK HERE for a table exploring regulatroy & non-regulatory options for Buffer Conservation & Protection

When and how do you restore a buffer?

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Restoring a buffer is best done when water quality impairments have been identified or are visible (e.g. a green appearance on a lake’s surface), when there is a desire to increase habitat availability, and/or when storm buffering is needed. Restoration options include the following:

  • REPLANTING native trees and plants (e.g. river birch, sweet pepper bush, and fragrant sumac) along the buffer area. However, it can often be a challenge to get seedlings to take root and grow especially if the planting year is a dry year.For example,Riparian buffers have been restored at the Sagamore-Hampton Golf Course in North Hampton, New Hampshire, through the N.H. Sea Grant’s Coastal Research Volunteers program.  

Pre- and post-restoration photos of a riparian buffer area in North Hampton, New Hampshire. Photos provided by New Hampshire Sea Grant.

  • RESTORING the floodplain gives rivers more room to accommodate large floods and is the best way to keep communities safe. Giving rivers more room provides a number of other benefits including clean water; open space for agriculture, recreation and trails, and habitat for fish and wildlife.For example, since 2009, The Nature Conservancy and partners have spearheaded an effort to protect and restore floodplain forest within the Connecticut River watershed. This began with prioritization of tracts for protection and restoration based on criteria including the existence of low, regularly flooded terraces and extensive shoreline, the potential to link to protected areas across the river, and the location of the tract in an active river area. Within these priority areas, the team used an adaptive management approach to determine the most cost effective approach to bring back silver maple (Acer saccharinum), American elm (Ulmus americana), and other native floodplain species to floodplain terraces that can support this habitat into the future. This effort has been challenged by the tension between restoring buffers and maintaining active farming and competition caused by invasive plant species, such as oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), that can lead to high mortality of planted seedlings, particularly in the lower portion of the watershed. (CLICK HERE to read more about  the Vermont River Corridor and Floodplain Management program.)
  • RESTORING buffers through planting native plants and trees is an important tool in protecting waterways and communities. For example, more than 8,152 miles of forested buffers covering have been planted within the Chesapeake watershed since 1996. The initiative has been undertaken through the implementation of riparian forest buffer incentive programs, most notably the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). In the most productive years, the bay states averaged 830 miles of buffers alongside riparian areas restored per year. Proper use of tree tubing and herbicide application were found to greatly improve restoration success. This program has had some setbacks due to lack of funding, interruptions in program availability, and the need to re-enroll landowners after expiration.
  • To explore more case studies across the country CLICK HERE.