I’ve composed this post in order to organize my thoughts on a topic that will be discussed in the next Planning Commission meeting – tomorrow night. So this is not the usual after-the-fact report, or a long-range forecast, but a tipping of my hand, or a kind of overture to the Commission’s deliberations.
The Land Use element of the 2004 Comprehensive Plan refers in several places to a program that permits the transfer of development rights from sending areas, where development could adversely affect critical areas and aquifer recharge, to receiving areas where infrastructure and other factors favor development above the density permitted by base zoning.
As defined in our TDR program, ‘sending areas’ are the undeveloped or under-developed areas of open space, forests, and agricultural acreage, and ‘receiving areas’ are in Winslow and the Neighborhood Service Centers.
In the Final Report of the 2025 Growth Advisory Committee, the implementation of a proposed Island-wide conservation plan relies upon such transfers of development rights as a way to protect designated areas and promote compact development of new homes.
However, for a number of reasons, the TDR program has been a flop. Can it be fixed, or should it be replaced by something else? In 2006 and 2008, COBI commissioned two studies by a Seattle-based firm, Community Attributes. I find valuable information and useful recommendations in the two reports, but looking at them now I’m left wondering if the obstacles to success with TDR procedures can, or should, be removed.
Right up front in the longer of the two reports (Transfer of Development Rights Program Review, 2006), in the ‘Summary of Findings’ on pp. 9-12, eight findings are stated and explained, and they do not say anything good about our program. On p. 14, several ‘Keys to Success’ are described, and as it stands the program falls short in almost every respect.
The first of the key factors that would support a TDR program – “A strong real estate market in receiving zones; ideally, the demand for development rights outweighs supply” – is worth discussing. We have had a strong real estate market in receiving zones, but purchasing or otherwise qualifying for an FAR bonus has been “more predictable, easier, and cheaper for developers,” as the report points out (p. 12; see also pp. 19-20). Furthermore, I’m not aware of property owners in the sending area who want to sell their development rights, even though they are valued higher per unit than rights in the receiving area.
Another item from p. 14 (see also p. 3) is “A TDR bank to facilitate transactions.” This strikes me as essential to any success, if we see any need and opportunities to purchase development rights. Currently, as I understand it, the TDR program requires match-making and a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller; I wonder if any two such people have ever found each other.
A “bank” of some sort (it might not be specifically a ‘TDR bank’), or a special-purpose fund within COBI, could be funded from FAR bonus payments and/or other sources, to purchase development rights in areas where the conservation value of an undeveloped lot outweighs the costs and benefits entailed in full exercise of the right conferred by zoning. I don’t think there will be many opportunities for such purchases, but a small fund could be a problem-solver.
Both the TDR program and the two reviews of its flaws are, in my view, relics of a by-gone time in City government, when the Council and the administrative staff, including the elected Mayor, competed for the high ground and defended their separate prerogatives, without much in the way of results. In those years some good policy initiatives were never implemented because they lacked the support of a majority on the Council. As a consequence of this dissention, the Planning staff were sometimes stuck holding the bag, administering imperfect regulations and ineffectual programs because attempts at problem-solving had not been endorsed by the Council.
It’s time to let by-gones be by-gones. Right now I am cautiously optimistic that we will come through the Comprehensive Plan update with a Council and an administrative staff under the City Manager that will trust and empower one another. Let’s hope we will also have a community that is broadly supportive of the Comp Plan’s goals and its implementation.
Although it is clear that a TDR program has not worked on Bainbridge Island, and I doubt that a modified program will work in the future on a scale that makes a real difference, there’s a good reason why efforts were made to understand the obstacles and overcome them. The basic purpose of such a program – “to preserve wetlands, high vulnerability recharge areas, agricultural land and open space” – certainly motivates planning efforts here, and the stakes are higher now than they were a decade or two ago.
So if not by a TDR program, we need to find other ways to prioritize conservation in some parts of the Island and promote dense or compact development in other areas, so that property development and population growth, as they happen, can be managed with minimal negative impacts on our resources and quality of life.
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The drafting group has done some work on a conservation strategy. The Planning Commission will discuss that topic on June 25th, and probably return to it on July 9th. Attention will be focused on the part of the Land Use element devoted to Residential Open Space (i. e., the part of the Island zoned R-0.4 or R-1; see LU-25 to LU-29 in the text now being reviewed).
In the current draft, LU-25 opens with this Goal statement: “Adopt a conservation strategy to preserve the open space area outside Winslow and the Neighborhood Service Centers through a land use pattern that enhances the character of the area – forested areas, meadows, farms, scenic and winding roads that support all forms of transportation – and the valuable functions the open space area serves on the Island (i. e., aquifer recharge, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation).”
That’s a solid foundation for policy statements, and in the pages that follow, the current Comp Plan includes a number of policies that the update will reaffirm and enhance. I’ll try to keep up with the ongoing work in subsequent posts. Stay tuned.