County rezoning plan omits TDR system

Urban growth advisory committee suggested development rights transfer as fairer method

July 28, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

When creating a rezoning plan to steer development, Washington County planning officials overlooked a key recommendation from citizen advisors that would compensate rural landowners for lost development rights, one advisory committee member said.

The Urban Growth Area Advisory Committee recommended using a system of Transferable Development Rights (TDR) that would allow rural landowners to sell their development rights to landowners in more urban areas.

However, county planning staff did not incorporate TDR requirements into their proposed rezoning plan, which has been the subject of two public information meetings and is expected to go to a public hearing by early fall.

Opinions are divided on whether a TDR program would work in Washington County, and it would be up to the Washington County Commissioners to decide whether to implement one, said Stephen T. Goodrich, the county's chief senior planner for comprehensive planning.


A fairer system?

Jerry Ditto, an Urban Growth Area Advisory Committee member and leading advocate of TDRs, said such a program would bring fairness to the county's efforts to concentrate growth around existing urban areas and preserve rural areas from development.

In 2005, as the first phase of that effort, the county reduced the development density allowed in rural areas. As a result, farmers like Ditto, who owns land off Md. 494 in northern Washington County, saw their allowance drop from one house per acre to one house per five acres, Ditto said. Other land was reduced to as little as one house per 30 acres.

"One has to acknowledge that's a significant reduction in available building lots or value," Ditto said. "Whether or not you ever intended to use them, that's been taken away from us."

Now, the county is preparing to adopt the second phase of its growth management strategy, a comprehensive rezoning of the Urban Growth Area around Hagerstown, Funkstown and Williamsport to encourage development there.

As part of that process, much of the almost 9,700 acres of agriculture-zoned land in the growth area would be "upzoned" to allow more dense development, Ditto said.

"Those people are getting somewhat of a gift from the county," he said.

Instead, the advisory committee recommended requiring developers to buy TDRs from rural landowners before allowing "more intense use" -- increases in housing density or greater infrastructure demands -- than what is currently allowed in the growth area.

A TDR program also could help address sewer capacity issues, Ditto said. Environmental regulators are cracking down on the pollutant loads that sewer systems add to waterways feeding into the Chesapeake Bay, but as development rights are transferred from rural to urban areas, sewer connection rights potentially could be transferred as well, he said.

Up to the commissioners

The advisory committee's recommendation to require TDRs has gone largely ignored in discussions about the rezoning plan by the county commissioners and the Washington County Planning Commission, Ditto said.

"I would hope they just missed it and glossed over it," he said. "But yet that concept needs to be incorporated from the very get-go if you're going to make it part of it."

Planning Commission Chair George Anikis said the commission had never examined a TDR program in depth because it had not been directed to do so by the county commissioners.

"It's useless for us to spend the time if the Board of County Commissioners says it's a program they don't want to implement," he said.

A few years ago, the commissioners hired a consulting company to study the potential for a TDR program, but they never made a decision, Anikis said.

That 2007 consultants' report called TDR a "low-cost mechanism for agricultural land protection that doesn't rely on public funding" and recommended its use immediately as well as incorporation into the county's longterm planning framework.

Mixed opinions

When asked their positions on TDRs, most of the commissioners seemed open to some form of the system, but some also raised major reservations about it.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the urban growth area did not have the sewer capacity to handle the density of development allowed by current zoning, let alone the additional development that would be encouraged by rezoning or a TDR program.

Ditto's idea to transfer sewer discharge allowances along with development rights might be plausible in theory, but it would require approval from environmental regulators and a willingness by the municipalities to expand their systems, Aleshire said.

He also raised concerns about a lack of demand for increased development rights and a lack of county staff to regulate a TDR program.

Instead, Aleshire suggested a program in which development rights could be exchanged within areas served by the same aquifer.

Too late in the game

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he thought TDRs should have been given more consideration, but he said now was "too late in the game" to revisit the concept.

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