Of­fi­cial: TDRs could pre­serve east­ern New­ton

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - ROB DEWIG rdewig@cov­news.com

One of the in­te­gral and most con­tro­ver­sial parts of the 200-page 2050 Plan to zone the county to keep up with the growth of­fi­cials ex­pect is its sec­tion on “trans­ferrable de­vel­op­ment rights.” It’s de­signed to help res­i­dents of the east­ern side of New­ton County fi­nan­cially ben­e­fit from the pos­si­ble down-zon­ing of their ru­ral prop­er­ties.

Thurs­day night, the plan’s ex­pert on TDRs, Royce Han­son of Mary­land, spoke about them for nearly an hour with a rau­cous crowd gath­ered in Mans­field, the heart of the plan’s ru­ral and con­ser­va­tion districts.

“I think what ju­ris­dic­tions around the coun­try have found is that TDRs are a good deal for landown­ers, they’re a good deal for builders, they’re a good deal for the com­mu­nity and they’re a good deal for tax­pay­ers,” he said.

Han­son be­gan work with TDRs 35 years ago, and he cred­ited them with help­ing save agri­cul­ture in his county that borders Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Other coun­ties in his area have been par­a­lyzed by sprawl, which 2050 plan­ners have said they wish to avoid at all costs, while his has avoided it. Al­though the ab­sence of sprawl is not en­tirely due to TDRs, it has cer­tainly been helped by them, he said.

He launched his pre­sen­ta­tion by ad­mit­ting that TDRs are not needed. The plan, or an­other like it, could be com­pleted “with sim­ple zon­ing, but would prob­a­bly mean find­ing dras­tic down­zon­ing in some ar­eas.” TDRs give landown­ers of large, ru­ral prop­er­ties a chance to sell de­vel­op­ment rights they can’t use to de­vel­op­ers in ar­eas planned for high de­vel­op­ment who want to build more than the min­i­mum they’re al­lowed un­der zon­ing. There is al­ways a max­i­mum on the “bonus den­sity” those de­vel­op­ers can build, Han­son said, but that will spelled out, too, in the fi­nal plan.

TDRs are a “mar­ket-based sys­tem,” he said, al­low­ing the pri­vate sale of de­vel­op­ment rights from a landowner in a “Ru­ral” or “Con­ser­va­tion” district di­rectly to a de­vel­oper else­where in the county. That would in­clude ar­eas of western New­ton County and the “Hub District” in the county’s far east­ern edge, both of which are planned for heavy growth.

The amount of TDRs as­signed to in­di­vid­ual prop­er­ties as spelled out by the plan’s draft ver­sion one can be cal­cu­lated by “sub­tract­ing from the gross acreage all acres re­stricted from de­vel­op­ment by ease­ment or sim­i­lar in­stru­ments, and di­vid­ing by 2.5.” There­fore, the owner of a 20acre tract in a con­ser­va­tion district (upon which only one house could be built as the plan is cur­rently writ­ten) would have eight TDRs to sell, if de­sired.

The sys­tem would work like this: The landowner could sell TDRs for any price agreed upon with the buyer. The buyer could ac­quire as many TDRs as de­sired up to the max­i­mum num­ber of homes or apart­ments al­lowed in his or her district. Both sides win in that sce­nario, Han­son said. TDRs are per­ma­nent, mean­ing the sale would be recorded in the county clerk’s of­fice and the TDR ease­ments would be­come ir­rev­o­ca­ble.

TDRs are strictly vol­un­tary. No­body has to par­tic­i­pate, no­body has to sell, Han­son said. Landown­ers could and should treat them as an in­vest­ment in their own property, he said, some­thing to sell for quick profit or stash for a rainy day. The mar­ket

price will go up and down as growth surges and re­treats, so landown­ers do­ing their home­work could sell TDRs for a hefty profit.

Han­son was fre­quently in­ter­rupted, at his re­quest, with ques­tions about the sys­tem. Is it like em­i­nent do­main? No. When a property owner sells a TDR, does the over­all value of his land de­crease? Yes, but the sale of the TDR is pure profit. Might el­derly people be duped into sell­ing their TDRs at low prices? Yes, but that risk is al­ways there when sell­ing any­thing.

Why 20 acres?

That was the rub. Res­i­dents in the con­ser­va­tion districts are limited to lots of 20 acres un­der the plan as writ­ten, an idea that has re­ceived con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism. Han­son him­self pro­posed the 20-acre min­i­mum for the plan, and de­fended it as the best way to truly pro­tect the county’s clean Al­covy River and agri­cul­tural ar­eas, but ad­mit­ted Thurs­day that the pub­lic’s crit­i­cisms “have been heard” and that 20-acre min­i­mums are un­likely in fu­ture drafts of the plan.

The sec­ond part of the TDR sec­tion of the 2050 Plan, so-called “Den­sity Trans­fer Charge Fees,” will be elim­i­nated in fu­ture drafts, Han­son said.

The plan dis­cussed Thurs­day is the first draft. There will be at least two more be­fore the county and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties vote on the plan, and there is no time­line for fi­nal adop­tion.

He said he learned “the hard way” that larger min­i­mum lot sizes bet­ter pro­tect ru­ral ar­eas. In the 1970s, he said, five-acre min­i­mums were the rage, the thought be­ing that they’d be large enough to pro­tect farm­ing. Wrong. “They were a mag­net for es­tate de­vel­op­ments that were frag­ment­ing the farm­ing ar­eas of (his Mary­land) county so it was im­pos­si­ble to farm next to those lit­tle pods and sub- di­vi­sions.” Five-acre min­i­mums wound up in­creas­ing sprawl, pol­lu­tion and tax­payer-funded in­fra­struc­ture like roads and sew­ers.

An­other mem­ber of the au­di­ence asked if he’d be al­lowed to rebuild his home on a lot smaller than 20 acres in the con­ser­va­tion district if it burned down or was dam­aged by a storm.

“The an­swer is yes,” Han­son im­me­di­ately replied. “The (ru­mor) that you could not rebuild your house in event of a storm or a fire is not true.”

Gov­ern­ments can buy TDRs for uses such as a park, but Han­son said in Mary­land gov­ern­ments who do can­not sell them in or­der to avoid com­pe­ti­tion with the pub­lic.

He was asked why a ref­er­en­dum hasn’t been con­sid­ered, al­low­ing the pub­lic to vote whether it wants the plan. He replied that one could be done, but said it should be done (if at all) af­ter the gov­ern­ments adopt the fi­nal plan. Right now, it’s just too com­plex for an up or down vote, and it’s merely a draft in any case.

Plus, he said, “you elect a board that un­der state law is re­spon­si­ble for plan­ning and zon­ing.”

Han­son con­cluded his pre­sen­ta­tion by say­ing TDRs are merely a tool that could be and should be adopted, “but there are al­ways other op­tions.”

Han­son’s son is a New­ton County doc­tor.

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