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Draft of TDR program near completion
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After nearly a year of study, a draft ordinance for the adoption of a Transfer of Development Rights program is close to being completed.

If adopted, the TDR program would be used to funnel development toward certain areas of the county with the infrastructure to support it while also empowering property owners with large land holdings who wish to leave their land undeveloped.

A TDR is simply the transfer of the development rights from one piece of property to another. Every piece of property has the potential to be developed. However if the owner doesn't want to see his or her land developed and would rather keep it as green space forever he or she can sell the development rights of that piece of property (while still retaining ownership of the land) to a developer or a land trust.

The developer has the incentive to purchase TDRs from landowners because they allow the development of land to a more intensive degree as a result of not having to set aside acreage as green space. The developer has already set the green space aside when he/she purchased TDRs in another part of the county.

 According to a feasibility study on TDRs presented to the Board of Commissioners at the end of August, a TDR program encourages voluntary re-direction of growth from sending areas where a community wants less development to receiving areas where a community wants growth.

After reviewing the study the board authorized a study team to prepare a draft ordinance on a TDR program for their consideration. That draft ordinance is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

"We hope to have an ordinance to show just for discussion purposes to the commission by the end of January," said Rick Pruetz, a planning consultant working with the county on the TDR ordinance. "We're not by any stretch saying that that's an ordinance that's going to be ready for adoption."

To qualify as a sending area, a property owner must have a minimum 25 acres of land holdings in a rural area (zoned as either residential, agricultural or conservation on the county's Future Land Use Map) or 10 or more acres of constrained land in a rural area. Property owners of 10 or more acres on non-rural land can also qualify.

Rural landowners who decide to participate and agree to sell the development rights of their property are constrained to one unit or building per 25 acres of property. Non-rural landowners who decided to participate are constrained to one unit or building per 10 acres.

"The sale of the TDRs compensate for the difference when they forgo part of their development potential," Pruetz said. "They can choose between various options how much development potential they're basically going to give up."

Rural landowners who agree to the standard easement of one unit per 25 acres will receive two TDRs for every acre. Non-rural landowners who agree to the easement of one unit per 10 acres will receive two TDRs per acre.

If, however, a property owner decides that they want to go further than that, they can receive more TDRs by agreeing to a more restrictive easement.

Once a landowner enters into the TDR easement it cannot be changed Pruetz said.

Encouraging preservation

As the TDR ordinance is written now, it only allows for the using of TDR credits in residential developments.

"We're just trying to take it one step at a time. It's complicated as it is," Pruetz said. "This is sort of the bread and butter TDR program. There are commercial programs out there but they work best when the land intensity is so great that developers see a need to go up, particularly with office buildings."

In the particular TDR program considered for Newton County, Pruetz said it is suggested that developers be able to make in lieu payments of $10,000 for every TDR to the Newton County Land Trust. Developers also have the option of negotiating directly with the landowners selling TDRs.

For every TDR that is purchased, developers will be allowed to build one extra house. For example the county's Residential 3 zoning currently allows for two houses per acre. If the BOC decides to adopt the TDR ordinance, developers with enough TDRs will be able to build three to four houses per acre under that zoning.

"One of the important things to note is the maximum (number of houses built) is still controlled by the zoning," Pruetz said.

Pruetz said there was initially some concern that all future development would be sent to the northern and western parts of the county which are already much more developed than the southern and eastern parts of the county and that there would be no preserved green space in the western part of the county.

However the draft TDR ordinance allows any part of the county to be a sending area of TDRs or a receiving area of TDRs. The burden is on the landowner to decide whether to take part in the program.

"This is a completely property owner driven program meaning a property owner, if they meet the size requirements, can participate regardless of where they live in the county," Pruetz said.

Scott Sirotkin, zoning administrator for Newton County's Planning and Development Department, has been working with Pruetz on the TDR ordinance.

"It's a very complex program and I've been trying to meet with anyone who has questions," Sirotkin said. "We've seen a range of responses, some folks with a great deal of enthusiasm and other folks who are more cautious. Most of the time they leave those meetings, feeling more comfortable with the program."

Sirotkin invited anyone with questions about the TDR program to call him at (770) 784-2197.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said he is in favor of having a TDR program in Newton County. Ewing said he believed a TDR program would go a long way to meeting the goal established by the BOC to set aside 20 percent of county land as green space.

"Transfer of Development Rights are a tool that we could utilize to help us achieve that goal," Ewing said.

Ewing also noted that there are a number of farming families in the county who would like to preserve their land for agricultural purposes (farming of the land is allowed under TDR).

Property taxes, however, are threatening the ability of many farmers to hold on to their land. By selling the developmental rights of their property, the value of the land will go down to a more affordable level and many farmers who otherwise would have been forced to sell can retain their land.

"I see it as a tool in the toolbox that should be made available for those people who want to utilize it," Ewing said. "It's not something that will fit everybody, but it is something that will fit some people. Therefore I hope that at some point the Board of Commissioners will adopt the Transfer of Development Rights program."

Ewing said he also hoped that the Newton County Land Trust would agree to cooperate with the BOC and would establish a bank to hold the TDRs.

"It's a rather comprehensive program but we have most of the tools in place," Ewing said.