Getting a handle on open space
County, city work to iron out development right differences

Areas like this pasture, along County Road 234, could be targeted as potential open space under a transferable development rights program being considered by the county and the city. Under such a plan, rights to areas earmarked for open space could be bought from willing landowners and transferred to areas designated for higher-density development.
/Photo by Todd Newcomer.

In the midst of the recent swell of development, La Plata County is searching for an antidote to sprawl. For the last four months, a working group has been studying an open space tool known as transferable development rights (TDRs). Currently, the biggest obstacle to development of a pilot TDR program is cooperation and consensus between county and city governments.

On Oct. 20, La Plata County commissioners unanimously voted to enter a six-month moratorium on development in the Grandview area. The moratorium was enacted, in part, to give county staffers a breather and a chance to investigate TDRs.

In brief, TDRs are the process by which property rights are purchased in “sending areas,” places earmarked as vital open space. Developers then take these rights to urban, “receiving areas” where they have the opportunity to develop density in excess of regulations.

The Grandview area, where the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has proposed 2,500 new units centered around an expanded Mercy Medical Center, has been deemed an appropriate receiving area. The potential high density of the development and the prospect for bringing the area within Durango city limits make it a good candidate for TDRs.

At the time the moratorium was adopted, Joe Crain, director of county planning, commented, “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.”

Since that time, a group known as the Grandview Rural Urban Incentive Demonstration Group (GRID) has worked to determine whether Grandview does in fact represent a real opportunity.

According to Crain, one the largest obstacles to a TDR program has been making sure the receiving area, the City of Durango, also would benefit.

“If we’re going to have a workable program, we’re going to have to find something that’s agreeable to both the county and city,” he said. “I think our task is to narrow this thing down to where it’s beneficial to the city.”

Tom Maynard, a consultant with the Four Corners Planning and Design Group who has been hired by GRID to guide the process, agreed that the city must get more than additional growth out of the program.

“The main challenge is to make sure the city of Durango buys into the program,” Maynard said. “Some of the city councilors have been reluctant so far.”

Maynard said this reluctance is partly because preserving open space in La Plata County would be accomplished by driving up Durango’s size and population. “While it’s possible to have a wide, geographic sending area like La Plata County, it’s important that the city sees some immediate benefit,” he said.

City Planner Greg Hoch said that from his perspective, the TDR issue is still too murky. “I don’t think we’ve reached the stage where everyone understands what’s involved,” he said. “The fact that the city may appear reluctant isn’t so much that we have problems as we need more information and comprehension of what’s at play.”

Hoch did add, however, that any TDR program would have to be mutually beneficial to both city and county. He said more dialogue would be necessary. “Where we’re at with the GRID group and with the city is determining how this process might work to simultaneously benefit the city and the county,” Hoch said. “We’re not there yet.”

One hurdle that the group has surmounted is a determination of what kinds of land a TDR program would target for preservation. Maynard remarked that five categories of land types have been selected – corridors adjacent to highways, river corridors, agricultural parcels, greenbelts around developed areas and critical wildlife habitat. He noted that the highway corridors and greenbelts would be directly beneficial to Durango. Maynard is currently mapping the entire county to show which areas contain one or more of these characteristics. Tracts with the most attributes would receive the highest priority.

“There are some parcels that will have all five of those attributes,” said Maynard. “Those offering more public benefit might be granted more value.”

The GRID group has another meeting scheduled for Feb. 19, where it will continue to debate subjects like the merits of unit-based TDRs vs. value-based TDRs. Until these kinds of questions are resolved, the realities of implementing a TDR system in La Plata County will remain a large unknown.

“It certainly hasn’t been decided,” said Maynard. “It seems like a good number of the working group has bought into TDRs. I don’t know whether a program will actually be on the ground by April 20, but we’ll probably have a decision on whether we’re going forward or not.”

Crain agreed that the group is generally in favor of TDRs.

“We’re making some headway,” he said. “It’s kind of too early to tell, but I think there is some buy-in by everybody.”

However, the GRID group also is rapidly approaching a hard deadline. The county’s moratorium on Grandview development expires April 20, and the details may prove too numerous to resolve by that time. Crain concluded by saying that an extension of the moratorium to serve county and city needs may be necessary at that time.









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