Scenic Views & Land Development: Preserving Views from Your home & Other Favorite Places
If you’re concerned about how growth may affect views from your home or scenic vistas anywhere in the USA then contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 (call-text) or Rklein@ceds.org for an initial no-cost discussion of strategy options. Please don’t hesitate. Delay almost always decreases the likelihood of success.
Whether you’re concerned about the loss of a pleasant view from your home, a mountaintop or historic building, there are a number of preservation options. In fact sometimes proposed development and other land use changes even provide opportunities to enhance views.
In this webpage CEDS introduces these options and opportunities in enough detail so you can pursue each on your own. But if you feel you require professional assistance then please contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or Rklein@ceds.org.
Within our nationwide network are landscape architects, historic preservation experts, attorneys and all the other expertise required to assess and implement a visual preservation and enhancement plan. Besides the free advice offered in this webpage we’d be delighted to answer your questions by phone at no cost, provided research is not required.
Viewshed Impact Examples
Each year CEDS receives a number of requests from folks throughout the U.S. seeking advice on how to prevent a proposed development or some other project from altering the view from their home. A few also involve a proposal that would place an unsightly structure within view of a mountaintop, a historic building or some other scenic feature. The most intrusive proposals involve things like landfills, mining operations, cell towers, transmission lines, etc.
But they can also be much smaller in scale, such as replacing the forest behind a home with a parking lot. Fortunately options are available for resolving viewshed impacts both big and small. With most the starting point is a viewshed analysis. For example, Sparks-Glencoe, MD residents were concerned about a proposed townhouse project that would have damaged the view from one of the most scenic sections of York Road. They were also concerned about the poor stormwater pollution control proposed by the applicant. As shown in the accompanying before-after illustrations, CEDS helped the residents gain the political leverage needed to get the applicant to eliminate a number of townhouses and vastly improve landscaping, both of which greatly reduced viewshed impact. The applicant also upgraded stormwater control to state-of-the-art practices.
Efforts to preserve a treasured view usually begin with an analysis to determine if a proposed activity will be intrusive. The analysis starts at the observer’s location which could be
- the second story of a home,
- the highest floor of a historic building,
- various locations throughout an area of historic or archaeological value where visitors may be present, or,
- a mountaintop.
Whenever possible an easily seen target object, such as a large orange helium-filled balloon, is placed at the location of the potential intrusion. One then stands at each point of interest and notes whether the object can be seen. The test should be conducted at those times of year when an intrusion would be most visible such as winter when trees are barren of leaves. If you lack access to the actual site then see if an adjoining property owner would allow you to place the target on their land.
If a potential intrusion may be visible from a number of locations then a sightline analysis, like that pictured below, can be used to assess the impact. The analysis will indicate whether hilltops, ridgelines, buildings, trees or other features will mask the intrusion from view.
Maps showing land surface elevations, like the USGS topographic sheets, are needed to create the sightline. Draw a line from each observation point to the intrusion site. See if any features intercept the line of sight. Be certain to account for intrusion height and intervening obstructions not shown on maps like trees.
There are a number of online resources for topographic maps as well as sightline analysis. Our favorite is at Free The Hills.
For high intrusions, like a cell town, transmission line, smokestacks or landfill, CEDS has used large (4′ diameter), orange balloons. We hire a local company to inflate the balloons with helium, then float each to various points from ground level up to the maximum elevation of the potential intrusion. Observers then see if the balloons are visible from all locations of interest. Usually this technique is best used at early morning or late evening when winds are minimal. Ideally, the test is conducted at those times of year when an intrusion would be most visible such as winter when trees are barren of leaves. If you’re dealing with a very tall intrusion then check with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure you do not exceed restrictions.
Measures to Resolve Viewshed Impacts
Frequently a double rows of evergreen trees like those pictured below will effectively screen an objectionable land use from view. The species selected must retain leaves at sufficient density to maintain screening throughout it’s life. Some evergreen like pines lose lower branches (and screening effectiveness) as they age. Others such as Arborvitae do not.
If trees cannot be planted at a height to provide effective screening then consideration should be given to an earth berm such as pictured below. The berm would be landscaped with trees and other vegetation to provide a more attractive view and enhanced screening. If trespass from the screened land use is a concern then a tall fence can be added within the vegetative buffer so the fence does not detract from views.
As illustrated in the photos below, some evergreen species are very effective at preserving views while others are not.
Large buildings can be particularly difficult to screen from view. The visual impact can be reduced through measures such as selection of exterior colors that allow the building to blend into the landscape, using well-shielded exterior lighting, or installing blinds that automatically close at night. There are other approaches like stepping building floors away from homes and adding green (landscaped) roofs as pictured below. Such a building would be easier on the eye then a large, rectangular structure.
Verify Solution Effectiveness
If an applicant or regulatory officials propose a solution then verifying effectiveness is vitally important. For example:
- If a vegetative buffer is proposed then ask where a similar buffer can be viewed. Visit the existing buffer so you can judge effectiveness first hand.
- If a buffer screens home from an incompatible view then ask those who live in the home how well it works year-round.
- Consult with an independent landscape architect or other professional about long term effectiveness of a vegetative buffer. Some evergreens are highly effective buffers when young but become less so as the shrub-tree grows and loses lower limbs,
- Frequently earth berms screen the view from the first floor of homes but not the second, and
- If the location or height of a potential intrusion is changed then use the sightline method to assess if the impact is resolved.
Landscaping, fencing and other visual buffering methods are usually required by project plans. While most local governments are pretty good at ensuring plan requirements are met at project completion, long term maintenance is far from guaranteed. With time maintenance can decline, particularly when a project becomes less profitable. It is usually up to local code enforcement agencies to ensure that buffering is maintained. However, most agencies are severely understaffed. It is for this reason that CEDS urges clients to execute side agreements giving citizens or a citizen group the power to enforce maintenance requirements.
Viewshed Impacts & Property Value
LULU stands for Locally Unwanted Land Use and includes landfills, gas stations, and a number of other things none of us wish to have near our home. Some LULUs can have a significant impact on the value of your home. Living near a landfill can depress property value by 13% or even more if it’s emitting noxious odor. But if the landfill cannot be seen, heard or smelled from a home then it would have little effect on value, provided the road next to the home doesn’t carry a high volume of landfill truck traffic. Being within 300 feet of commercial uses can reduce home value, but not at a distance of 1,000 feet or greater.
Anything that reduces the visibility of the LULU from a home should lessen the impact to value. In many localities, planning officials require fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and other retail establishments to be designed to look more like large homes. Ample vegetative buffering along with well-shielded lighting is also key to minimizing visual and property value impacts.
What one can see from a home can also have a very positive effect on property value. One study indicated that an ocean view can increase the value of a home by up to 60%. While the effect may not be as great, views of mountains or just a natural landscape can also increase property value. Just being near and within view of parks, forest or other open space can increase property value.
Views From Your Home
CEDS receives many calls from folks concerned about placing homes like theirs nearby. These calls usually involve one of two scenarios:
- The rear of a proposed home will face the rear of an existing home. Residents of the existing home are rightly concerned about the loss of privacy they presently enjoy while on their deck or backyard, and/or
- A stand of trees or other dense vegetation will be replaced by homes causing a decline in a natural viewshed along with a decline in the sense of privacy.
In both scenarios its usually easy to resolve the intrusion with a vegetated buffer. If the buffer depth is too shallow to achieve sufficient screening then it could be augmented with a high, solid fence. If placed mid-depth in the buffer then the fence should be obscured by the planted shrubs and trees.
The most difficult situation is one where the existing home and proposed intrusion are at very different elevations. In these situations it can be difficult to create a buffer with sufficient height to screen views from the existing home. But there are always options, the best of which depends upon site-specific conditions.
Mountains, Waterways & Other Landscape Features
It can be particularly challenging to preserve views of oceans, bays or other waters as well as that of mountains or other valued landscape features. The challenge is two-part: preserve views from and of the feature. The best example is a mountain. Because it towers over the landscape the mountain can be seen from a vast area and those at the summit can see a vast area as well. Yet preserving both views is not impossible.
Let’s say you paid a premium for a home with a view of a mountain. A development proposal involves the construction of a tall building which would block your mountain view. Most local land use regulations limit building height. Some of these limits are intended to prevent just such a loss of a scenic view such as those adopted by Portland, OR, Denver, CO and Lake Placid, NY. All three have enacted ordinances to preserve views from and of mountains.
While wind energy is essential to curbing climate-changing greenhouse gases and the other negative effects of fossil fuel energy generation, not every location is suitable. Our goal must be to guide wind turbines to sites where benefits will be maximized and impacts minimized. For example, a 2013 study of offshore small to moderately turbines sized (377-449 feet) wind turbines in the United Kingdom determined that:
- The structure may be visible at a distance of 26 miles during the day,
- Aerial hazard navigation lights mounted on turbines are visible at a distance of 24 miles at night,
- Moving blades may be visible at a distance of 24 miles during the day, and
- “The observed wind facilities were judged to be a major focus of visual attention at distances up to 10 miles, were noticeable to casual observers at distances of almost 18 mi, and were visible with extended or concentrated viewing at distances beyond 25 miles.”
The authors of the United Kingdom study noted that much larger wind turbines – 613 feet tall – were in production as of 2013.
The National Association of Realtors Field Guide to Wind Farms & Their Effect on Property Values summarized some of the research on the property value effects of wind turbines:
- Studies conducted in Chicago, Massachusetts, and Texas found that wind farms had no effect on property value,
- A wind farm proposed for a Lake Ontario island was projected to cause an average property value decline of 12%,
- Another New York state study found that wind facilities reduced property value in two of three affected counties, and
- A study of wind turbines in Minnesota and Wisconsin noted a 12% to 40% decline in property value,
The variability of these findings demonstrates the need for site specific analyses of property value effects.
Historic-Archaeological Resource Viewsheds
The view from a historic place can be just as important as the building or ground itself. The same is true for structures or areas of archaeological or cultural significance. A battlefield is an excellent example.
Maintaining the site and adjoining lands in the same condition as when the battle took place can be essential to allowing visitors to understand why the conflict occurred at the location as well as why it unfolded in a particular way. Many modern day battles have been fought over proposals to place big-box stores or other intrusive uses within the viewshed of a historic-archaeological resource.
Government agencies charged with preserving these resources have adopted policies and regulations to accommodate a reasonable amount of growth while preserving viewsheds. An excellent example is the Antietam Civil War Battlefield Overlay District adopted by Washington County, MD. The District applies to areas within 1,000 feet of major roads providing battlefield access or any other area that is important to maintaining the viewshed. Factors regulated within the Overlay District include location and exterior appearance of proposed buildings as well as tree removal.
According to Scenic America, 48 states and the District of Columbia have programs to recognize roads with outstanding scenic quality. Many local governments have also adopted policies and regulations to preserve additional roads they value because of scenic views. A Corridor Management Plan is essential to the preservation and enhancement of scenic views while maintaining safety and convenience. If your local government lacks such a program then consider some of the examples described in the next section.
Viewshed Protection Laws
During our research for this webpage CEDS came across two excellent summaries of viewshed protection laws adopted by various localities throughout the nation:
- Connecticut Office of Legislative Research Report Regulating Scenic Views, and
- National Trust for Historic Preservation Approaches to Viewshed Protection Around the Country.
The Genesee NY Transportation Council has a great factsheet on Protecting Scenic Views. This factsheet contains the elements that any good viewshed preservation program should cover. Compare these elements with those contained in your local or state scenic view programs or laws. If you find either wanting then consider launching a campaign to change the law. Guidance for achieving this goal can be found in Chapter 41: Changing the Law of our free, 300-page book How To Win Land Development Issues.
Winning Viewshed Preservation Battles
Three CEDS webpages explain how to win viewshed preservation campaigns as well as any other land use or environment battle:
To discuss strategy options for winning your campaign contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or Rklein@ceds.org. If you feel you lack the time to research strategy options then consider retaining CEDS to conduct an Initial Strategy Analysis. Most analyses cost between $700 to $1,000 and can be completed within two weeks of receiving a retainer. For further detail including examples of Analyses visit our Initial Strategy Analysis webpage.