Land as Property: Real Estate, Legal and Regulatory Designations Associated with Land

What’s Covered

In the Land Status group, you’ll find Parcels which identify ownership. Superfund and RCRA are USEPA designations. Landfills locate former waste sites. Conservation and Protected Land and Priority Conservation Areas have varying degrees of recommended or legal protection. Open Space by Type displays four main human uses of open space. Generalized Zoning Districts present the various designated uses of property.


“Land” is understood on two levels. First, at the natural characteristics level. Second, however, is as property. This section of Greenprint layers, in general, displays various real estate, legal or regulatory designations associated with property.

Parcels have size, shape and ownership. Many remaining natural places are privately held, so understanding property ownership is key to conservation and balanced growth. Efforts to restore greenspace often require the assembly of multiple parcels to create enough acreage for adequate ecological function. This often involves multiple property owners.

Vacant Land is both a challenge and opportunity for northeast Ohio. In the Greenprint Explorer, Vacant Land displays parcels with no structures. This could mean that the parcel has not yet been developed. In residential neighborhoods, though, it likely means that a house was torn down and demolished. The foreclosure crisis of the early 2000’s left post-industrialized urban areas, like Cuyahoga County, with an abundance of vacant lots. One opportunity is for redevelopment of these vacant parcels for residential, commercial or industrial use. Another opportunity, though, is to assemble contiguous vacant lots which, together, are large enough to support a green infrastructure facility, a park, or an accessible, open natural space for passive recreation, enjoyment along with wildlife habitat.

Throughout history, some property is (or could be) contaminated from use as a waste dump or mismanagement of chemicals. Superfund is USEPA’s phrase for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act which regulates the cleanup of contaminated sites. RCRA is USEPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which handles the active as well as past treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes. Just because a property is registered under RCRA does not necessarily mean that the property has any form of contamination. Though in 2023 there are no active landfills in Cuyahoga County, historically there were. The characteristics of these properties, particularly the lack of structural stability, could limit or affect future use for restoration or development.

Some communities and private property owners provide some conservation protection through conservation easements, Balanced Growth Plans, or zoning. Conservation easements are legal restrictions on the use or development of the land for the sake of protecting natural features and functions which currently exist. There are tax benefits to property owners with conservation easements.  Priority Conservation Areas (PCAs) are areas designated locally for protection and restoration as part of a Balanced Growth Planning effort. Balanced Growth Ohio, a voluntary and incentive-based program, promotes best local land use practices with a framework to develop municipal and watershed plans that sustain economic development and conservation. Four state- endorsed Balanced Growth Watershed Plans identify the PCAs in Cuyahoga County as of 2020 include:

  • Chippewa Creek
  • Chagrin River
  • Big Creek
  • Furnace Run

Other options include setting aside land for conservation and utilizing site-sensitive design and cluster development strategies to reduce negative impacts on the environment. These sustainable development practices can reduce development costs related to grading, site preparation, storm water management, and the construction of infrastructure such as roads and utilities. These sustainable development practices have been shown to increase the value of the lots sold. Common Ground, The Land Protection Report of Northern Ohio published by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, recommends a developed community, such as Cuyahoga County, is best served if it can sustain 15% of its land in permanent protected conservation status.

Open Space property may be designated by its use, such as park, cemetery, golf course or other institutional classification. Open space is an important and vital part of daily life in urban areas because it improves the social health of communities, enhances the environmental quality of ecosystems and contributes to the economic viability of the region. Protecting and restoring natural systems – their biodiversity, habitats, and aesthetics – will result in a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable County. Naturalized open space is a critical component contributing to storm resiliency which is especially important as the region confronts increasing storm severity due to climate change. The Open Space layer can be found under the Greenprint layer group 10-Other.

Ohio is a “Home Rule” state – meaning that the lowest level of incorporation (township, city, village, etc.) decides its own land use through its own zoning. Though each municipality may use slightly different variations, the Generalized Zoning Districts layer displays, for the entire county, the main zoning classifications of residential, commercial, industrial and public. Within each of these zoning classifications, it’s important to have ecologically functioning green spaces as well as accessible open spaces for people.

image of Cuyahoga Hts cemetary

Importance and Value

  • Accessible parks and natural places are fast becoming an important quality of life feature necessary for attracting and retaining people.
  • image of euclid beach benchAn ongoing study by the Trust for Public Land shows that over the past decade, voter approval rate for bond measures to acquire parks and conserve open space exceeds 79%.
  • Parks, recreation programs and services contribute to individual health. There is a correlation between lifestyles that incorporate moderate activity with a lower prevalence of important risk factors for heart disease including hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
  • Parks increase property values and can improve the local tax base. The Trust for Public Land conducted a 2018 study of the Cleveland Metroparks that indicated a 5% value premium for residences proximate to reservations and trails.
  • Parks and recreation programs may also provide indirect revenues to the local economy from hospitality, tourism, equipment rental, and sales.
  • The environmental designation of a property will direct what that parcel may or may not be used for in the future. A “clean” status is often required if a future use involves children and contact with soil.
  • Receding shorelines encroach on homes, threatening homeowners and their property.
  • Shoreline erosion also reduces tax revenues and increases insurance costs.
  • When silt and clay erode, they suspend in the water and reduce the sunlight reaching the lake bottom affecting fish habitat.

Recommendations for Communities and Landowners

  • image of towpathPromote higher-density, mixed-use development to conserve land area and public resources.
  • Amend zoning regulations to include design guidelines for private and public improvements that reduce parking requirements and incentivize LEED
  • Use capital improvements and master planning processes to make natural spaces accessible with trails and overlooks for recreation and physical activity.
  • Integrate accessible open spaces into the community’s quality of life brand and marketing efforts.
  • Establish safe, reasonable ways people can access recreation facilities or parks; in general, people will walk no more than a half mile to reach them.
  • Consider shared use agreements between communities and private institutions or property owners for public uses of open space.
  • Establish an open space or recreation zoning district that allows communities to reserve land for open space, parks, and recreation facilities.
  • Take advantage of the Ohio Public Works Commission Clean Ohio Fund and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Parks & Recreation NatureWorks Grant Programs for funding greenspace conservation or recreation needs.
  • Identify and protect important natural features. It is essential for communities to have a detailed inventory and evaluation of resources to determine priority areas for conservation.
  • Protect natural areas through purchase, conservation easement, or with requirements for restricted, sensitive development.
  • Coordinate with a watershed or land conservation group to restore degraded landscapes to their prior state or to what they would have become without disruption.
  • Consider converting vacant space and/or brownfields adjacent to parks and nature preserves into green space.
  • Ensure the integrity and sustainability of natural areas with plants and animals that are both native and resilient (can resist disturbance).
  • Promote infill development and brownfield redevelopment rather than greenfield development.
  • Promote higher-density, mixed-use development to conserve land area and public resources. Communities should encourage development patterns that mix land uses so that jobs, services, schools, shopping, and other destinations are near residents’ homes and neighborhoods.
  • Use cluster or conservation development strategies. Develop homes on a smaller portion of the total available land. The remaining land, which would have been allocated to individual home sites, could then become protected open space shared by residents of the subdivision and the larger community. Conservation development is characterized by three features:
    • At least 40% of the land in the development is dedicated as open space.
    • The open space is high quality and linked to other areas of open space.
    • The design of the open space protects natural and cultural resources.
  • Enhance habitat on private property through landowner enrollment in state and federal conservation programs.
  • Take advantage of Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program grants and other funding programs to help set aside land for conservation.
  • Adopt emerging practices for coastal erosion prevention and management.

Resources for More Information

Top photo by Jason Cohn, courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy