Open space tool nears completion
Public to weigh in on transferable development rights

A horse grazes in a pasture along County Road 301, southeast of Durango, earlier this week. After more than 18 months of research and discussion, a La Plata County transferable development right (TDR) program is nearly ready to be unveiled. TDRs could be one new way of keeping lands such as this free from development. However, the public will have the final say in whether the program pans out./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A new tool could help guide the largest growth boom in the Durango area's history. After more than 18 months of analysis, research and discussion, a La Plata County transferable development right (TDR) program is nearly ready to be unveiled. Members of the working group agree that the technique could be one new way to keep threatened lands free of subdivisions. The final hurdle will be getting the public to buy in.

On Oct. 20, 2002, the La Plata County commissioners took a breather from development pressures and voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on growth in the Grandview area. The move was largely a response to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's proposal for more than 2,000 new units immediately east of Durango. And the moratorium was enacted in part to give county staffers and a citizens' working group some space to investigate TDRs as a way of preserving open space before it is too late.

"Durango is booming, let's face it. Either we'll have a creative, multifaceted approach to growth, or we'll wind up with the sprawl of areas like Grand Junction," said Tami Graham, a member of the working group and board member of the Animas Conservancy.

"We do have an active choice."

Grass grows up along a fence lining County Road 250 in the Animas Valley earlier this week. A program being studied by the county would preserve open space in “sending” areas such as this one outside of town in exchange for higher density for developers in “receiving” areas closer to town./Photo by todd Newcomer.

As one facet of the approach, TDRs would be the process by which designated land is preserved by allowing dense development in and around existing urban areas. Essentially, property rights are voluntarily purchased in "sending areas," places earmarked as vital open space. Developers then take these rights to urban "receiving areas" and are given extra units in exchange. Places targeted for preservation include river corridors, agricultural land, green belts surrounding urban areas and highway corridors.

"It's not an anti-growth thing," said Graham of the need to preserve these areas. "When it comes to something like scenic highways, most people agree that tourism needs to be protected. We don't need a strip mall from Bayfield to Durango."

The moratorium and its extension have long since expired, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's Three Springs Development is moving on without TDRs. However, there is widespread agreement that the program could aid in open space preservation as La Plata County and Durango move into the future. Mike Preston, the facilitator of the TDR working group, said that people need to look beyond Three Springs and consider the long-term potential.

"Even if it takes a while to become functional, you really have to take the long view and put this in place," he said. "You've got to look at what having that tool in the tool kit means over the long haul. If a TDR mechanism had been in place in the Animas Valley 20 years ago, it could have dramatically changed (the valley's) current appearance."

A tale of two TDRs

TDR programs have mixed track records throughout the nation. 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.

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, Boulder County also approached TDRs differently than La Plata County plans 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."

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 said. "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."

- Will Sands

Jeanne Trupiano, executive director of the Animas Conservancy, said that despite appearances and impressions, La Plata County still has a great deal of open space that needs to be preserved.

"We have so much land that's left even though it feels like it's going," she said.

One of the biggest appeals of the program is that it is incentive based and would create a win-win scenario, according to Preston. Developers could potentially take home higher profits and preserve critical open space at the same time.

"Combined with other land use tools it gives you a new vehicle," Preston said. "It is one tool and one appeal of it is that it is incentive based." 4

Trupiano added that any new open space tools are welcome. "I think we need all the tools we can get," she said. "You have to have some real strategy and be able to offer alternatives rather than just saying 'no.'"

Flexibility was also deliberately designed into the program, and Graham said that it is one of its greatest assets.

"I think we need creativity and flexibility because of the diversity of needs in the community," she said. "We have the agricultural areas, the urban interface and the river and highway corridors, and they will all take different approaches."

However, the TDR program has yet to be tested locally, and it could be a challenging step. Preston noted that placing an incentive-based approach within a planning context could be one stumbling block.

"It's difficult because you're really meshing a market-based approach within a regulatory framework," he said. "To make those things work together is a difficult task."

Kathy Roser, executive director of the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, added that giving density bonuses to developers could also be a tough sell.

"I don't know that it's something that will be used a lot if it is implemented," she said. "You've got to be able to sell it on the basis of fairness."

Plus, Trupiano noted that clustering and density are still not easy concepts for the residents of La Plata County. "People have to come around to seeing that clustering isn't that uncomfortable when compared to a checkerboard of subdivisions," she said.

People will have that opportunity to come around in the approaching months. Preston said that TDRs should be up for public discussion and review by early fall. At that point, the program will face its first major test.

"If the public doesn't like it, it's going to be a goner," Roser said. "If the public does like it, it could be a new tool for open space."

With the future landscape hanging in the balance, Graham concluded that the public should give the TDR program a careful look.

"I hope that citizens can withhold judgment until they take a hard look at this and explore the usefulness of what's being proposed." she said. "It really does take citizens' involvement to give this kind of thing the political will it needs."





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