Editor: Momentum is building in Loudoun for an ordinance to make development rights transferable, something that has proven hugely successful at satisfying both the needs of developers and preserving agricultural land in neighboring Montgomery County, MD. There, developers have paid $120 million in 7,000 transactions to acquire development rights on more than 52,000 acres of farmland and utilized them in areas more appropriate for development. Many other counties in the U.S. and a few in Virginia have adopted TDR ordinances, including Frederick recently.
During the wee hours of Dec. 5, the Board of Supervisors approved an initiative put forward by Catoctin District Supervisor Geary Higgins and Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tony Buffington and referred the question of a TDR ordinance to the county’s staff for study and a report back to the board on Feb. 21.
The principal idea behind a TDR program is that the Board of Supervisors should not give away any additional development density anywhere in the county over and above what is currently allowed—whether the new development is housing units, commercial square footage or data centers—without requiring developers to remove the potential for development somewhere else through purchase of transferable development rights.
A TDR ordinance would allow landowners to sever their development rights from their land ownership, thereby making their development rights transferable upon recordation of an open-space easement in favor of the county. After severing the development rights, landowners would be able to sell them at a market-determined price while maintaining full ownership of their land. The TDR program would be entirely voluntary,i.e., no landowner would be required to give up his development rights if he wants to develop all or part of his property.
Developers would purchase TDRs at a fair price if market conditions permit them to take advantage of additional densities made possible by the Board of Supervisors acting through a public process with community involvement. Developers would use those TDRs as their ticket to build additional housing, commercial space or data centers where the board and the community have determined that is desirable. Those locations would be determined by the community acting through the board’s adoption of the Comprehensive Plan, amendments to the Zoning Ordinance, or approval of conditional zoning applications for specific projects. A purchase of TDRs by a developer would not confer an automatic right to increase density wherever the developer might wish, so there would be no surrender by the Board of Supervisors of its authority over the course of development in the county.
A TDR ordinance would also requiredevelopers to purchase TDRs in order to take advantage of densities made possible by the Comprehensive Plan. This is necessary to create a market for TDRs. Without the mandate, or some other equally strong incentive for developers to purchase TDRs, no market for TDRs would exist. With a functioning TDR market, the benefit to Loudoun’s citizens will be that every increase in housing, commercial or data-center development authorized in one place in the county will be offset by taking development rights off the table somewhere else.
Those supporting the TDR concept are not advocating “density packing” in the suburban areas of eastern Loudoun. By creating overlapping sending and receiving areas that cover most of the county, a TDR ordinance could permit, with community and board approval, transfers of development rights both into and out of the Rural Policy Area, the Transition Policy Area, the Suburban Policy Area and perhaps even the county’s incorporated towns and the Joint Land Management Areas around them if the towns are willing to participate in the program.
A TDR ordinance would be completely neutral about the wisdom of adding additional housing, commercial or data center density in eastern Loudoun, western Loudoun or anywhere else in the county. Its effect would be to maintain the current level of authorized development county-wide yet meet the county’s needs for growth where the board and the public deem that to be desirable.
Making development rights transferable provides an additional policy tool that can be employed by the community acting through the Board of Supervisors to achieve the county’s overall planning objectives. If the county decides to authorize additional development anywhere to meet growth needs, this will be an opportunity to reduce density elsewhere—one that will be lost unless we have a TDR ordinance and a functioning TDR market.
Paul Lawrence, Middleburg