Searching for a solution to sprawl
La Plata County begins to look at feasability of transferable development rights

Sidebar: Southern Utes blast transferable development rights

Wide open spaces: Under a transferable development rights program, such as the one being studied by county officials, property owners of open space like this could sell their development rights to developers, who, in turn, would use the rights to build higher-density projects in areas of the county predetermined for dense growth. / Photo by Todd Newcomer In the face of an unprecedented push for growth and development, La Plata County is searching for an antidote. There is specific hope that a tool, known as transferable development rights, could put an end to the kind of sprawl that’s beginning to get a toe-hold locally. Government agencies elsewhere in the state offer pictures of hope, having successfully used TDRs to effectively manage growth in other areas.

Last Monday, La Plata County commissioners took undivided favorable public input and unanimously voted to impose a six-month moratorium on development in the Grandview area. Much of the motivation for the moratorium was preventing speculation and ramshackle development immediately east of Durango. However, county staffers also are planning to use the breather to look into transferable development rights, which would encourage protection of open space by shifting density into the Grandview area.

Now or never

“The one thing that’s concerned the county for years is sprawl expanding beyond Durango’s boundaries,” says Joe Crain, director of county planning services. “In order to curb sprawl, there has to be some mechanism to do that.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Crader family have forwarded a plan for as many as 2,000 new units on a 920-acre site roughly two miles east of Durango. The plan gained real momentum when plans were announced to donate 35 acres to Mercy Medical Center, which plans to leave its undersized building downtown and relocate. In addition, the tribe is hopeful that the city will soon annex the land. The potential high density of the development, the prospects for an annexation as well as the addition of the hospital all make the project a good candidate for transferable development rights, according to Crain.

“We see Grandview as an opportunity, maybe the last opportunity, to do something with transferable development rights,” he says.

County planner Stacy Patten concurs.

“We felt like we should try now or forever be quiet,” she says.

In a nutshell, TDRs are the process by which property rights are bought on areas fit to be open space and transferred to areas fit for dense, urban development. In the case of Grandview, the Southern Ute Tribe would be given an opportunity to develop density in excess of regulations. However, getting extra units would entail buying out other property owners’ ability to develop their pristine or threatened land, thus preserving that land for perpetuity. The open space extending north, south and east of Elmore’s Corner is at the top of the county’s list for preservation. However, Crain notes that all agricultural land throughout La Plata County is of concern.

“There’s a real opportunity, I think, to make the Grandview area a dense urban area and give developers an incentive to purchase and transfer development rights,” says Crain.

Though the next six months will be spent in part deciding whether TDRs would be feasible, La Plata County is certain about one thing: Transferable development rights would not be forced upon anyone.

“We’re going to stress that it’s going to be a voluntary system,” says Crain. “We’re going to have to dangle a pretty good carrot in front of developers.”

County commissioners imposed a six-month growth moratorium onthe Grandview area partly in order to study transferable development rights to see if they are a reasonable approach to controlling further sprawl, such as this in the southern Grandview area.  /Photo by Todd NewcomerA test piece

Elsewhere in Colorado, municipal and county governments have used both the carrot and the stick to successfully implement schemes whereby development pays for the acquisition of open space.

“We sort of do it without calling it transferable development rights,” says Crested Butte Planner John Hess.

In the late 1990s, a 33-unit development was proposed immediately outside the limits of the town of Crested Butte. Known as the Kapushion Annexation, the development requested admittance into Crested Butte boundaries as well as a tie-on to municipal sewer and water service. However, one of the prerequisites for joining the town was the preservation of 5 acres of open space per unit. After negotiations, the Kapushion Annexation locked 110 adjacent acres in permanent preservation. “They could have done it anywhere, but they did it next door to their property,” says Hess.

Hess says that the 5-acre requirement literally had just been adopted when the development plan came before the town. At that time, he thought it would have been prohibitive of annexations. “We had just written that into our Three-Mile Plan, and they walked into our door,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell off my chair.”

And while the Kapushion Annexation transfer was seamless, Hess says that it’s not always so simple. “Finding areas to preserve is easy,” he says. “There’s always the problem of choosing where you’re sending that density. The people living next door usually don’t like it.”

Getting a developer to play is another obstacle, according to Hess. However, he notes, “I think if you give enough incentive to the developer it’ll work.”






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