Open space solution edges forward
County transferable development rights ordinance drafted

An empty stable gets a fresh blanket of snow along County Road 250 recently. Under an ordinance being
drafted by the county, open space like this could be preserved by developers in exchange for higher-density
development elsewhere in the county./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

After more than a year of work, a potential antidote to sprawl in La Plata County remains in limbo. However, efforts to create an open space tool known as transferable development rights (TDRs) are continuing to move forward, and there is hope of some resolution by early next year.

On Oct. 20, 2002, La Plata County commissioners took a big breather and voted to enter a moratorium on development in the Grandview area. In one sense, the move was a response to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s proposal to build more than 2,000 units on vacant land east of Durango. In another sense, the moratorium was enacted to give county staffers and a citizens’ working group an opportunity to investigate TDRs as a way of preserving open space before it is too late.

Sending and receiving

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 extra units in exchange.

The working group held its first meeting Nov. 13 of last year and since that time has labored to determine whether a voluntary, incentive-based TDR program would actually be effective in La Plata County.

Tom Maynard, a Four Corners Planning and Design Group consultant who is helping guide the process, explained: “The principle behind it is you designate an area to accept higher density. In exchange for allowing developers a slightly higher density, they would buy development rights in areas deemed worthy of preservation.”

On Oct. 29 of this year, one week after an extension of the moratorium expired, the working group reached somewhat of a milestone. At that time, a 13-page draft ordinance was revealed. The group’s next hurdle will be explaining the complex process to the public and trying to get buy-off.

“It’s somewhat complex so we’re working on taking ideas about how this will work and start discussing them with the community,” said Mike Preston, who has been facilitating the working group. “The intent right now is that there be an opportunity for people in the community to digest this and give input.”

Preservation priorities

Preston and Maynard said one of the group’s biggest accomplishments has been identifying types of areas in the county worthy of preservation. Open space along highway corridors and river corridors, agricultural land, and green belts surrounding developed areas have been named as priorities for preservation.

Another accomplishment has been deciding on a value-based transfer system that will be appropriate for La Plata County’s bustling real estate climate versus the unit for unit transfers common in many other places.

“A unit-based approach doesn’t always work very well if you’ve got a real estate market that’s rapidly appreciating like ours is,” Maynard said.

A next step will be looking at real-life scenarios and putting concepts into concrete form. “Some of us are going to be looking in a little more detail and taking real-life situations and real-life property values and seeing how they translate into preserved land,” Maynard said. “We’re trying to get from the abstract to something we can get our hands around.”

Preston added, “What we want to do now is do some what-ifs, run them through the framework and see how powerful a tool this could be.”

Profit motives

County Planner Nancy Lauro said that there have been some questions about the validity of TDRs from the development community. “I haven’t heard anyone who is really opposed to the concept,” she said. “Most of the people with concerns are afraid we’re going to create artificially low density requirements. We’re not going to do that.”

Maynard elaborated, saying that it could present a win-win scenario. “The density bonuses we’re talking about are consistent with Durango’s densities,” he said. “Developers can make a reasonable profit with a base density. They can make a higher profit with density bonuses and create preserved open space.”

Throughout the nation, TDR programs have mixed track records. However, there is one area close to home that’s put a different spin on trading development for open space and seen a great deal of success.

A pond catches a horse’s reflection along County Road 203. Agricultural land is one of four types deemed worthy of preservation by a citizens’ working group./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A slightly different spin

Boulder County began its transferable development rights program in 1995. Since its inception, nearly 4,500 acres of land have been preserved as open space. However, right off the bat, Boulder County approached TDRs differently than La Plata County hopes to.

“It’s a little different than the typical TDR programs because we don’t offer developers an enormous bonus density,” said Peter Fogg, Boulder County’s manager of long-range planning,.

In 1995, developers were required to bring 35 acres to the table for every one unit they wished to develop. However, if a developer brought an adequate number of transferable development rights, he or she would be allowed three units per 35 acres. The developer also selects the site to be preserved and then proposes it to county officials. “We leave a lot of it up to the developer,” Fogg said. “It was clear that if we designated specific sites, it would have done bad things to land values.”

A look at the future

After more than eight years of the program, Fogg said it has been effective but he credited tighter regulation. In the case of a purely voluntary, incentive-based system like La Plata County is proposing, he said it could be more difficult.

“It’s kind of a tough one because there’s a fine line between offering it as an additional option and tightening down the other bolts and steering developers in that direction,” he says. “You really need to consider offering considerably higher density. I think it’s only realistic that you’re going to have to give a good bonus.”

The La Plata County commissioners will likely weigh these and other options when they consider the ordinance. Lauro said that the document will probably be before them early in 2004. Should it be adopted, a more difficult road could be beginning, she said.

“I think we’re going to go ahead with an ordinance and then we’ll have to do the hard work which will be designating specific areas for sending and receiving,” she said.





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