Buffers vs. Setbacks
Use of the terms ‘buffer’ and ‘setback’ can be confusing, especially since general usage can be different from municipal use. In general, a ‘buffer’ is something that forms a barrier or cushion between incompatible things, and a ‘setback’ is a physical distance something is placed back from something else.
However, in municipal planning, a ‘setback’ usually refers to the distance a structure needs to be from a property line, and in GIS (digital mapping), a ‘buffer’ is generally a consistent expansion beyond the footprint of a feature.
As a municipal tool for protecting natural infrastructure, the intent of buffers and setbacks is the same: to ensure a physical separation from a natural infrastructure feature so as to protect that feature or its function.
In this Toolkit, we distinguish the terms as follows:
A ‘Buffer Zone’ is focused on the natural feature, and is designated with reference to the feature. It is not specific to any particular adjacent land use activity.
’Setback Guidelines’ are focused on the adjacent proposed development activity, and gives that developer or builder a numeric distance they must be back from the defined edge of a feature.
Operationally, these can be employed as one undertaking; e.g., a buffer zone around critical wildlife habitat, that includes a specific distance by which adjacent development must be set back.