TDRs: County Shell Game?

Originally published July 28, 2012 in SRQ Daily

Taxpayer land bought for preservation is tapped for increased development

For over a year, the Sarasota County Commission has been quietly considering the sale of development rights associated with environmentally sensitive, publicly owned land. The proposed sale of transfer of development rights, or TDRs, has led to significant
questions and concerns in our community. All the acronyms involved—TDR, ESLPP, ESLOC—may put you to sleep, but the proposed sale of TDRs and accompanying County growth implications could have a big impact on your neighborhood, business, property rights and quality of life.

In 1999, 67 percent of Sarasota voters approved the Environmentally Sensitive Lands
Protection Program (ESLPP). We agreed to increase ad valorem taxes “not more than
0.25 mill” for “acquiring, protecting and managing environmentally sensitive lands.”
Most Sarasotans are keen to ensure our county does not become like Miami or Fort
Lauderdale, full of concrete and congestion. Yes, we want our urban centers, but we also
like our space, critters, sky, wetlands and seashores. The Environmentally Sensitive
Lands Oversight Committee (ESLOC) is a group of savvy citizens advising staff and the
commission about the purchase and management of ESLPP land.

What is a TDR? One TDR (transfer of development right) is equal to the right to build
one dwelling. A publicly owned parcel zoned for 100 dwellings has 100 TDRs. Why is
there concern about the sale of County TDRs? Expressing concerns, citizens have
weighed in with questions about whether TDR sales are consistent with the 1999
referendum, sound growth policies and respect for property rights.  Many find the concept of separating development rights associated with protected land  objectionable, and this idea was not included in the 1999 referendum. For these folks, stripping public land of its associated development rights so they can be sold and used to increase development in a different area appears to be a clever shell game. Voters approved the land purchases so the land would be protected. Voters did not approve selling the development rights. Is this really a good idea?

The case against TDRs also includes the argument that mass purchases of development
rights from the government undermines private property rights. As former Sarasota
Mayor David Merrill wrote, land use regulation is intended to make sure necessary
infrastructure is in place before development occurs and to make sure adjacent uses are
compatible in character. When “receiving zones” are established for TDRs, the County
will be acknowledging the infrastructure is or will be available and the intended uses are
compatible within the zone. If that is the case, why should property owners be required
to buy development rights from the government? Don’t those allowable uses already
belong to the property owner?

One citizen shared how TDRs were used successfully in her New Jersey community
looking to stop farms from disappearing. In the 1980s, it was too tempting for farmers
to sell land to developers who were offering millions, even if the farmers wanted to
continue to farm. TDRs were the answer. Farmers could sell the development rights and
keep their farmland, guaranteeing it’s preservation. The development rights could then
be transferred to areas approved for such development. TDRs were sold by private
landowners for land that would have been developed otherwise, solving a community
problem: disappearing farmland. In Sarasota, our government is considering the
opposite: creating TDRs from public land that is already protected to allow increased
development when adequate development capacity already exists or can simply be
rezoned. Huh? The ESLOC recommends an approach like New Jersey’s, allowing the
sale of TDRs for private land, thereby increasing the amount of preserved land in
Sarasota.

One thing is certain: Sarasota County residents have tens of millions invested in our
environmentally sensitive public lands. These issues and others must be addressed
before that investment is used to fuel a County TDR sale and increased development.

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