Monday, April 27, 2009

Transfer Development Rights

Environmentalists are often viewed as anti-growth. True, conserving sensitive land is a serious concern. But informed environmentalists know that not all development is bad and that growth just needs to be steered in the right direction.

One innovative method to accomplish this goal is through Transfer Development Rights, which promotes responsible growth, while at the same time encouraging conservation. Simply put, TDR is the exchange of zoning rights from sparsely populated or sensitive areas, to more densely populated areas. These transfers allow for the preservation of open spaces and historic landmarks, while encouraging growth where growth makes sense.

TDRs should be used in the new Worcester County zoning code to eliminate existing commercial and estate zoning by allowing those property owners to sell their development rights to a designated receiving area for growth. Much of the commercial strip zoning on US 50 between Herring Creek and Stephen Decatur High School, and some of the remnant residential zoning along MD 611, Turville Creek and St. Martins River could serve as sending areas to places more appropriate for growth, such as parcels west of Ocean Pines. Land currently zoned for such estate zoning is in some of the most sensitive and flood-prone areas in the county.

Some form of transfer development rights is already in use in 10 Maryland counties. This voluntary program is set up through a given county which designates "sending" and "receiving" areas within its boundaries. Based on a county-set formula, landowners in sending areas can sell their development rights to developers who are generally permitted to build at higher density or on agriculturally-zoned land in designated receiving areas. Most counties place receiving areas in developing areas or on least productive soils. In turn, a permanent easement is placed on the sender’s land which is restricted from future development.

TDRs are voluntary, do not use tax dollars for land preservation, provide compensation for downzoning and allow for direct growth away from environmentally sensitive areas that should be protected. Additionally, a clear and concise TDR plan can allow for flexibility that would not otherwise be allowed with traditional zoning policies.

Zoning changes are on the horizon, and a public hearing on the proposed county zoning regulations is planned for early June. Now is the time to consider TDRs as a good way to direct growth away from areas that should be conserved while also compensating land owners. As has been proven in other counties, TDR’s are a successful way to preserve land in perpetuity while also stimulating development. We hope the public and county officials will remember this approach, which allows for more flexibility in achieving balanced growth, conservation and development.

The Maryland Department of Planning has a publication available that offers advice to local governments considering use of transferable development rights, describes existing TDR programs in Maryland and other states, and provides guidelines for preparing TDR ordinances and model zoning codes. For more information log onto

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