Lancaster County, PA

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania grapples with unplanned community growth, threatening its natural and historical assets. The county recognized that a coordinated master plan with a holistic approach is necessary to combat these issues, which span across municipalities, boroughs and townships. By establishing an urban growth area and designating rural centers, the county can direct development to increase density, infill development, housing affordability and housing options. This will cultivate a more sustainable economy while maintaining the local character.

Eshleman's Mill Covered Bridge with Amish buggy.  Photo by Ad Meskens via  Wikimedia Commons .

Eshleman's Mill Covered Bridge with Amish buggy.  Photo by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons.

Project Overview

Established in 1729, Lancaster County’s rural setting has a strong cultural and natural heritage that must be protected and preserved. The county is rich in natural resources, with productive agricultural soils, water bodies and natural habitat areas; however, these natural assets are threatened by unmanaged growth in response to the development of highway corridors that increased accessibility to the area and caused an influx of new residents. The challenges facing Lancaster County span across its 60 municipalities, 18 boroughs and 41 townships, which necessitated coordinated planning efforts and reviews.

The Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan emphasizes the interconnectedness among economic growth, natural and cultural heritage protection, social equity and quality of life. By applying a holistic approach to future planning the county is treated as a cohesive community rather than a sum of 60 independent municipalities.

The plan is comprised of three main elements: growth management, policy and functional elements. The growth management element, adopted in 2006, builds upon the two previous plans (1993 and 1997) by establishing an urban growth area and rural centers. By creating these clearly defined areas, the county can contain and direct future growth and development, while reducing sprawl. The plan also includes extensive implementation strategies, incorporating a smart growth toolbox and funding program, which includes such strategies as a purchase of development rights (PDR) program. A monitoring component, developed to measure progress and update implementation procedures, utilizes a growth tracking system and growth management indicators. This helps to outline benchmarks and goals, identify key variables to measure, and establish a timeframe for monitoring.

The plan includes distinct policy and functional elements that address a range of priority issues, including preserving the county’s natural and cultural heritage, revitalizing its urban communities, creating a sustainable economy, and promoting community engagement on issues through education and outreach. A water resources element will be integrated into the Comprehensive Plan to specifically address wastewater and stormwater management; water quality protection and restoration; and watershed planning.


Plan Highlights


Because recent suburban and rural development has impacted air and water quality and fragmented native habitats, resulting in the loss of plant and animal species, Lancaster County has created the Greenscapes Plan to protect the county’s natural resources.

  • The Greenscape component establishes a countywide green infrastructure system by providing an action framework at all levels of government and throughout the community.
  • Public and private sector resources include land acquisitions and purchasing development rights.


In order to protect the county’s identity, it has created a cultural heritage element to engage public, private and non-profit sectors to preserve the tangible and intangible elements that are important to the county’s sense of place.

  • The plan promotes maintaining its local character by prioritizing the preservation of farmland, revitalizing towns, and creating new neighborhoods that are consistent with traditional architecture.
  • A smart growth funding program targets funds for implementation, consisting of expanding existing capital programs and the Lancaster County Purchase of Development Program.


In planning the future of its communities, the Comprehensive Plan recognizes the importance of countywide coordination and the connections between economic growth, natural and cultural heritage protection, social equity and quality of life.

  • Public/private partnerships are used for land acquisition or development rights to create green infrastructure systems.
  • A Smart Growth Toolbox provides a variety of resources, including strategies, programs and best management practices that can be applied to a range of audiences throughout the community and local government, as well as at regional scales.
  • The toolbox is organized into the following categories: community capacity, economic development, heritage, housing, gray infrastructure, green infrastructure, rural areas, sustainable growth, tourism, traditional communities and transportation.


Lessons Learned

The Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan recognizes the importance of coordination throughout the county and the connections between natural and cultural heritage, economic growth, social equity and quality of life in creating a comprehensive approach to planning the future of its communities. The plan contains two important elements: 1) the use of policy to guide the preservation of natural assets, revitalization within cities, creation of a sustainable economy, enhancement of local skills, and promotion of community engagement, and 2) a growth management component to guide strategies and implementation. It is important to recognize that the municipalities’ adherence to the plan is voluntary, which could make coordinated implementation difficult. Being more specific in identifying who is responsible for key action items could ensure a more successful implementation.