A project in the Ranchos currently under review by Douglas County illustrates well the problems with the county’s Transfer of Development Rights program. The TDR program was established decades ago and is well-intentioned. But it is also seriously flawed and may not be a good match for today’s Douglas County, which is struggling with managing the growing impacts of development that only a few would have anticipated in the distant past.
The TDR program basically seeks the preservation of open space by enabling the transfer of new development from the rural area to the urban area of the county. It also multiplies the amount of development in the process through density bonuses designed to make such transfers attractive to rural landowners and urban developers.
The project at hand would rezone 33 acres of “receiving area” on the periphery of our urban area to allow 85 homes where only one is currently permitted. And its location is such that most of the traffic (800 daily trips) it would generate will feed quickly onto Riverview Drive and to its intersection with Highway 395, one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in the county. The trade-off is the theoretical prevention of perhaps a half dozen homes on somewhat over 100 acres somewhere in the rural area of the county.
The obvious question is whether this is worth it. Should we ask Ranchos residents to accept 85 new homes and 800 vehicle trips a day on an already crowded road network, causing deteriorating conditions at a major intersection, to prevent the theoretical development of a handful of homes in the rural area, development which might never occur anyway? The truth is that savvy rural landowners wanting to take advantage of the TDR program most likely sell the development rights on that portion of their land least suitable for development. Wouldn’t you do the same?
When the TDR program was established development pressures here were lower. And there likely was some expectation that the impacts of development would somehow be managed as they accrued. But that hasn’t been the case. Using the most obvious example, there are no practical plans for meaningful alleviation of growing traffic congestion here. And I think the long-term sustainability of domestic water supplies remains of concern to many. And we don’t seem to have a feasible plan to expand criminal justice facilities. Yet even without the TDR program we have zoning in place to more than double our population here.
The truth is that we should be looking for every opportunity to constrain growth here until we’ve come up with better plans for accommodating it. And we certainly should not be rubber stamping TDR projects until we complete a comprehensive review of that program. The three aspects most in need of reconsideration are the density bonuses, criteria for qualifying lands from which density is transferred and some consideration of the acceptability of the impacts of increased development at the receiving location.
Density bonuses are a common land use planning tool, but in most instances are on the order of 2 or 3 to one. In our TDR program they approach 15 to one. And we need to establish criteria that assure that we are actually getting something in exchange for these bonuses rather than the preservation of land that would never be developed anyway. And transfers shouldn’t create unmanageable impacts at receiving locations.
It’s difficult to focus public attention on what many would perceive as theoretical problems. We need practical examples to understand that things may not be working as intended. The current Ranchos project provides that example. The Planning Commission should use it to obtain a thorough understanding of how the TDR program really works and its benefits and costs in our current circumstances.
Terry Burnes is a retired planner and Gardnerville Ranchos resident.