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Posted: July 19, 2014 10:00 p.m.

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Official: TDRs could preserve eastern Newton

One of the integral and most controversial parts of the 200-page 2050 Plan to zone the county to keep up with the growth officials expect is its section on “transferrable development rights.” It’s designed to help residents of the eastern side of Newton County financially benefit from the possible down-zoning of their rural properties.
Thursday night, the plan’s expert on TDRs, Royce Hanson of Maryland, spoke about them for nearly an hour with a raucous crowd gathered in Mansfield, the heart of the plan’s rural and conservation districts.

“I think what jurisdictions around the country have found is that TDRs are a good deal for landowners, they’re a good deal for builders, they’re a good deal for the community and they’re a good deal for taxpayers,” he said.
Hanson began work with TDRs 35 years ago, and he credited them with helping save agriculture in his county that borders Washington, D.C. Other counties in his area have been paralyzed by sprawl, which 2050 planners have said they wish to avoid at all costs, while his has avoided it. Although the absence of sprawl is not entirely due to TDRs, it has certainly been helped by them, he said.

He launched his presentation by admitting that TDRs are not needed. The plan, or another like it, could be completed “with simple zoning, but would probably mean finding drastic downzoning in some areas.” TDRs give landowners of large, rural properties a chance to sell development rights they can’t use to developers in areas planned for high development who want to build more than the minimum they’re allowed under zoning. There is always a maximum on the “bonus density” those developers can build, Hanson said, but that will spelled out, too, in the final plan.

TDRs are a “market-based system,” he said, allowing the private sale of development rights from a landowner in a “Rural” or “Conservation” district directly to a developer elsewhere in the county. That would include areas of western Newton County and the “Hub District” in the county’s far eastern edge, both of which are planned for heavy growth.

The amount of TDRs assigned to individual properties as spelled out by the plan’s draft version one can be calculated by “subtracting from the gross acreage all acres restricted from development by easement or similar instruments, and dividing by 2.5.” Therefore, the owner of a 20-acre tract in a conservation district (upon which only one house could be built as the plan is currently written) would have eight TDRs to sell, if desired.
The system would work like this: The landowner could sell TDRs for any price agreed upon with the buyer. The buyer could acquire as many TDRs as desired up to the maximum number of homes or apartments allowed in his or her district. Both sides win in that scenario, Hanson said. TDRs are permanent, meaning the sale would be recorded in the county clerk’s office and the TDR easements would become irrevocable.

TDRs are strictly voluntary. Nobody has to participate, nobody has to sell, Hanson said. Landowners could and should treat them as an investment in their own property, he said, something to sell for quick profit or stash for a rainy day. The market price will go up and down as growth surges and retreats, so landowners doing their homework could sell TDRs for a hefty profit.

Hanson was frequently interrupted, at his request, with questions about the system. Is it like eminent domain? No. When a property owner sells a TDR, does the overall value of his land decrease? Yes, but the sale of the TDR is pure profit. Might elderly people be duped into selling their TDRs at low prices? Yes, but that risk is always there when selling anything.

Why 20 acres?

That was the rub. Residents in the conservation districts are limited to lots of 20 acres under the plan as written, an idea that has received considerable criticism. Hanson himself proposed the 20-acre minimum for the plan, and defended it as the best way to truly protect the county’s clean Alcovy River and agricultural areas, but admitted Thursday that the public’s criticisms “have been heard” and that 20-acre minimums are unlikely in future drafts of the plan.

The second part of the TDR section of the 2050 Plan, so-called “Density Transfer Charge Fees,” will be eliminated in future drafts, Hanson said.

The plan discussed Thursday is the first draft. There will be at least two more before the county and municipalities vote on the plan, and there is no timeline for final adoption.
He said he learned “the hard way” that larger minimum lot sizes better protect rural areas. In the 1970s, he said, five-acre minimums were the rage, the thought being that they’d be large enough to protect farming. Wrong. “They were a magnet for estate developments that were fragmenting the farming areas of (his Maryland) county so it was impossible to farm next to those little pods and subdivisions.” Five-acre minimums wound up increasing sprawl, pollution and taxpayer-funded infrastructure like roads and sewers.

Another member of the audience asked if he’d be allowed to rebuild his home on a lot smaller than 20 acres in the conservation district if it burned down or was damaged by a storm.

“The answer is yes,” Hanson immediately replied. “The (rumor) that you could not rebuild your house in event of a storm or a fire is not true.”

Governments can buy TDRs for uses such as a park, but Hanson said in Maryland governments who do cannot sell them in order to avoid competition with the public.

He was asked why a referendum hasn’t been considered, allowing the public to vote whether it wants the plan. He replied that one could be done, but said it should be done (if at all) after the governments adopt the final plan. Right now, it’s just too complex for an up or down vote, and it’s merely a draft in any case.

Plus, he said, “you elect a board that under state law has responsible for planning and zoning.”

Hanson concluded his presentation by saying TDRs are merely a tool that could be and should be adopted, “but there are always other options.”

Hanson’s son is a Newton County doctor.

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