In municipalities throughout New York, Conservation Advisory Councils (CACs) and Conservation Boards (CBs) advise local governing boards, planning boards, and zoning boards of appeals on matters related to the environment. By providing a scientific perspective on land-use planning and decision-making in their communities, CACs and CBs contribute to the conservation and improvement of the local environment and quality of life for residents.
In their municipal roles, CACs and CBs develop town-wide inventories of natural resources and open space, conduct research, review development proposals, conduct site visits, deliver education programs, implement stewardship projects, and gather and distribute information to other town agencies, land-use applicants, and the general public.
How do CACs or CBs benefit local governments?
CACs and CBs provide a formal structure within local governments for natural resource-based planning and advising on environmental matters. Because the CAC or CB can do some of the “legwork” associated with planning and environmental reviews, it can extend the work of a time-strapped planning board. The CAC can help to provide more thorough information about natural resources at a site and a more detailed analysis of planning issues and environmental impacts, resulting in a more comprehensive base of information for the land-use decision-making carried out by the planning board and by other local agencies. CACs can also help to raise environmental awareness, educate the public, and coordinate municipal officials, government agencies, and outside groups engaged in local or inter-municipal environmental planning or stewardship efforts.
How is a CAC or CB established?
CACs and CBs are established by a municipality under Article 12-F Section 239-x of NYS General Municipal Law and are sometimes called environmental commissions. A CAC may be established by ordinance or by local law and is composed of 3-9 residents appointed by the local governing board. Members should have a strong interest in the mission of the council, the time and willingness to work on CAC tasks, and willingness and ability to work cooperatively with other municipal agencies. It is helpful to have some members with knowledge and experience in the environmental sciences, planning, engineering, and law; however, there are no minimum professional qualifications. CAC members with an eagerness to learn are equally valuable and can attend trainings and educational opportunities to build their knowledge and skills.
Natural Resource and Open Space Inventories
State enabling legislation directs CACs to complete an open space inventory (OSI) prioritizing open areas in a municipality for conservation based on natural, scenic, and cultural values. A natural resources inventory is the implicit foundation for an OSI and serves to identify and describe naturally occurring resources. On the basis of this information, an OSI lists important lands in the community according to priority for conservation or acquisition and displays them on an open space map. An OSI is often developed within a broader open space plan, which outlines strategies for the use and conservation of priority lands, and serves to complement and inform the local comprehensive plan.
Conservation Board Status
When a local legislature adopts the open space inventory and map prepared by the CAC, the inventory becomes the official open space index for the municipality. The legislature may then pass a resolution to designate the CAC as a conservation board (CB). A CB remains advisory; however, it acquires a formal role in the environmental review process for any proposed actions on properties listed in the open space index. In some municipalities, CBs are asked to comment on all projects—not just those included in the index. In others, CACs are asked to provide reviews without having acquired board status.
County Environmental Management Councils
Environmental Management Councils (EMCs) are voluntary advisory boards appointed by county governments throughout New York and are authorized under Article 47 of the New York State Environmental Conservation Law. EMCs advise the county on land-use planning and local environmental issues, conducting inventories of natural resources and open space, developing county environmental protection plans, and conducting a wide range of policy research and public outreach activities. They provide an important liaison between municipal and county governments on environmental matters.
Resources for CACs, CBs, and EMCs:
- New York State Association of Conservation Commissions
- A Guide to the Organization of Local Environmental Advisory Councils
- Environmental Leaders Learning Alliance Conservation Accreditation Program Training Course
- Conserving Natural Areas and Wildlife in Your Community
- Creating a Natural Resources Inventory
- CAC Fact Sheet