Planner says transferring rights is driving growth

More than 3,600 acres of agricultural and other sensitive lands in Carson Valley are earmarked for preservation through Douglas County's transfer development rights program, but some argue the cost in terms of development has been too high.

"I think transfer development rights are a major source of growth," said Douglas County resident Terry Burnes, a retired urban planner from the Bay area. "We're trying to save thousands of acres, but we're adding the type of growth potential that has everyone troubled - water, traffic, and crowding."

The program was initiated by county officials to direct and curb growth on sensitive lands, but involvement in individual transactions is limited to recording the transaction, said County Manager Dan Holler.

"We get the developer who owns property in a receiving area together with ranchers who want to sell their development rights. They negotiate the purchase value," Holler said. "It's no different than someone putting their home on the market."

Transfer development rights programs require large tracts of land and high densities. For example, a proposed development on Heybourne Road includes the construction of about 398 single-family units in exchange for about 250 acres of open space using transfer development rights. The project would approve those units versus the 29 otherwise allowed on both the sending and receiving sites involved in the project, a significant increase in density, Burnes said.

"That's the price paid for preserving open space in an unspecified location, and residents don't know the quality of the acquisition with respect to open space. It could be floodlands that couldn't be developed anyway," he said. We have no idea."

Designed to compensate ranchers for the loss of earning potential when they preserve their lands rather than develop them, transfer development rights establish preservation easements in perpetuity.

Purchasing a transfer development right, or receiving a credit, allows a developer to build or increase the density of a project in a receiving area. Additional units, known as bonus density points, may be purchased from a landowner if that owner has met criteria specified by a county, according to an article in "Commercial Investment Real Estate."

The rights become the currency of development and the financial bottom line for developers is critical to their ability to purchase these rights, according to a report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Laura Crane, Carson River project director with The Nature Conservancy, said the program can direct development to more appropriate places away from flood plains, but there are other options.

"There are a number of different things that can be used to protect a plain from development, like conservation easements that don't encourage denser development somewhere else," she said.

In Douglas County, about 1.3 new homes are built to save one acre of private open space. Since 2001, 12 subdivisions have been approved in designated receiving areas in Carson Valley that required the transfer of development rights from qualifying sending parcels, according to this year's master plan report.

The program was initiated in 1999 and changed in 2001, the latter a move that gave developers a boost by allowing bonus units for special conditions. Burns advocates a repeal of those changes.

A bonus of 20 points are granted for every 100 contiguous acres preserved. Another unit is added for dedication of improved and permanent public access easements, according to the 2001 agreement.

The transfer development rights process primarily serves land owners and developers, but puts the community interests last, Burnes said.

"Only through the transfer development rights program do developers have the ability to develop suburban-style housing," he said. "This is ranch country. We first had an eclectic mix of individually-built homes. Now, we have fake Tuscan villages on small lots.

"The single-most effective step to put the growth issue to rest in Douglas County, would be repealing those (2001) amendments," he said.

Creating value for landowners in sending areas can create problems with respect to land values for those in or near receiving areas where densities and the problems that come with them, like traffic, can increase.

The goal of transferring density away from preservation and into growth areas has also not been effective in influencing the design and character of development in receiving areas, according to the Lincoln Institute report.

Commissioner Kelly Kite said there was no activity in Douglas County's transfer development rights program until those 2001 changes were made.

Ranchers had one-acre zoning, a designation that allows one single-family residence on one acre, up until the late 1970s. That designation had evolved into 19-acre zoning in the mid-1990s, a move that reduced the value of their land.

"If we take their transfer development rights away, we've pretty much robbed them blind," Kite said.

Rancher Arnold Settelmeyer said removing the 2001 bonus points would reduce the value of his land by about $5,000 to $10,000 an acre.

"Transfer development rights are beneficial to the community and taking them away won't stop growth," he said.

Just 23 property owners in Douglas County own plots of land totalling more than 100 acres each in Carson Valley. They hold a majority of the water rights and provide an estimated 75 percent of the recharge so critical to Carson Valley's aquifer.

Those 23 individuals are creating the viewshed for Carson Valley, but they haven't received much in the way of benefits, Settelmeyer said.

"People downstream would love to have Douglas County water rights and that's a challenge," Settelmeyer said. "If we can't sell development rights, I see a serious change. I see sage, but we'll also have growth controls. When the water is gone, there will be no problems with growth. Everyone will leave."

According to a recent article in Commercial Investment Real Estate, more than 20 states have implemented transfer development rights programs to preserve everything from historic buildings and agricultural land to forest and open space.

In the late 1960s, the city of New York allowed Penn Central Transportation Co. to transfer unused development rights for Grand Central Station to adjacent properties to preserve the historic landmark.

In 1986, Australia created a system of tradable fishing permits to stabilize lobster populations and during the first half of the 1990s, a system of tradable pollution credits in the United States cut emissions of sulfur dioxide in half, according to an article published by Cornell University.

Susie Vasquez can be reached at or 782-5121, ext. 211.


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