Water conservation, affordable housing are possible applications
Encouraging the construction of affordable housing or the temporary leasing of water rights during dry periods are just a couple of the things that the Pitkin County commissioners think Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) might be good for.
Commissioners on Tuesday held a brainstorming session on ways to broaden the use of the TDR program, which has been used since the 1990s to preserve land in rural and remote parts of the county.
Under the program, when rural property owners agree to forfeit their land’s development potential, they’re granted transferable rights to build or expand a home within Aspen’s urban growth boundary. They can either use that right themselves or turn around and sell it on the open market.
Since the program began in 1994, however, TDRs also have been used to prevent development on sites that are “constrained” by scenic views, steep slopes, or other variables, and to convince people to preserve historic structures that they own.
At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioner Steve Child floated the idea that the instruments also could be granted to people who agree to leave some of their water rights in the stream during drought, and commissioner Rachel Richards proposed the idea of granting TDRs to developers who construct affordable housing in or around Aspen’s urban core. Commissioner Rob Ittner seemed to fancy that idea.
“I like the logic …,” he said, noting that it encourages the creation of housing near established infrastructure, “and offsets the need for housing by extinguishing development somewhere else.”
Commissioner George Newman instigated Tuesday’s review of the county’s TDR program. Although he maintained that the program is valuable and effective at preserving rural land, he argued that it needs a few tweaks.
One change to the program that Newman said he’d like to see is more consistency in the number of TDRs issued across the county’s different zone districts.
Under current rules, some zone districts are governed by specific formulas for how many TDRs can be traded for development rights. In “rural and remote” districts, for instance, the county can grant one TDR per 35 acres of land.
In other instances, though, such as when a site is constrained by environmental, visual or historic values, an applicant can get as many TDRs as the commissioners think is “fair and equitable.” That’s what happened recently with the preservation of an archaic archaeological site above Emma, where evidence of human habitation up to 8,000 years ago has been found.
In July, the commissioners granted the owners of the Emma site two TDRs — compensation that was worth about $350,000 at the time. In exchange, the owners had to consent to the placement of a conservation easement and an archaeological management plan on their property.
Newman argued at the time that the owners of the Emma site had been over-compensated with two TDRs. One, he said, should have been payment enough. The other commissioners disagreed and overruled him 4-1.
“I’m concerned about finding a consistent message we can give out to people interested in coming before us for TDRs,” he said on Tuesday. “Sometimes we give out one, in one case we gave out three. We seem to be having to negotiate.”
But commissioner Michael Owsley countered that case-by-case negotiation has the virtuous effect of making applicants compete for the TDRs that they desire.
“I like the haggling, where the applicant has to be competitive about why the site should be preserved,” he said. “I think the discretion should be ours.”
Since the TDR program was created, most buyers of TDR certificates have used them to add floor area to their homes over and above the 5,750-square-foot limit enshrined in the county code.
TDRs can be used to expand a home’s floor area up to a total of 15,000 square feet, and a major question that county staff posed to the commissioners Tuesday was whether the use of TDRs to build large homes is in line with the government’s goals.
“Is the TDR program resulting in too many large homes in rural and remote areas?” asked Pitkin County Community Development Director Cindy Houben. “Is it too much of a strain on our resources?”
In order to blunt the temptation for TDR holders to build such castles on a hill, Houben suggested that the value of TDRs used for home expansion could be reduced as a homeowner got closer to the 15,000-square-foot limit.
So, for instance, the first TDR used could be worth 2,500 square feet of additional floor area, while the second would be worth 1,500 and the third less than that.
To further improve the precision of the TDR program, Ittner suggested that the county could benefit from the creation of a so-called “fractional TDR” that was worth less than the certificates now on the market.
That would give the commissioners a tool for situations where protecting an asset in the county was worth more than one TDR, but less than two.
It also could lead people to build smaller additions on the houses, Ittner argued, because it would be redeemable for less than the 2,500 square feet of floor area that a single TDR is now.
All of the proposed changes discussed on Tuesday remain in the embryonic phase, and Richards said that before voting on any of them she’d need to see analysis of their affect on the existing market for TDRs.
“There are a lot of people out there who have made a bargain, who bought these thinking they had some value,” she said.