Land Use Planning Fact Sheet: Watershed Based Zoning



Watershed Based Zoning is the foundation of a land use planning process using subwatershed boundaries as the basis for future land use decisions. Watershed based zoning involves defining watershed conditions, measuring current and potential future impervious cover, classifying subwatersheds based on the amount of future imperviousness, and most importantly-- modifying master plans and zoning to shift the location and density of future development to the appropriate subwatershed management categories (for more information see Basic Concepts in Watershed Planning, Article 38 in The Practice of Watershed Protection).


Watershed based zoning can employ a mixture of land use and zoning options to achieve desired results. A watershed based zoning approach should include the following nine steps:

By following these nine steps, this technique can be used to protect receiving water quality on the subwatershed scale by relocating development out of particular subwatersheds


While some of the costs of watershed based zoning can be integrated into a land use plan that is being revised anyway, both positive and negative economic consequences exist for stakeholders. For example, developers bear a large burden of the negative impacts through the potential rise in the cost of land and the constraints on where they can build. On the other hand, communities can benefit by attracting businesses and by protecting some areas from adverse uses. A summary of economic and environmental consequences of watershed planning and zoning is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Economic & Environmental Consequences of Watershed Planning and Zoning for Different Stakeholders

Stakeholder Positive Economic Consequence Negative Economic or Environmental Impact
Developer/ Builder Cost of land

Location constraints

Adjacent Property Owner Property value
Community Business attraction

Protection from adverse uses

Local Government Reduced clean up Staff and budget resources


Local officials face hard choices when deciding which land use techniques are the most appropriate to modify current zoning. Some of the challenges specific to watershed based zoning include:

Additional Resources

Rapid Watershed Planning Handbook, 1998. Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD.

Center for Watershed Protection. 2000. "Economics of Watershed Protection," Article 30 in the Practice of Watershed Protection. Center for Watershed Protection. Ellicott City, MD.