Enabling the transfer
of development rights in Ohio

By Kirby Date, The Countryside Program

From a watershed protection standpoint, the most desirable type of development is compact development focused on areas of existing infrastructure. Compact development allows for reduced impervious surface, more efficient management of stormwater, a wider range of transportation options, more organized management of wastewater, and the continued strength of existing cities and towns. In rural areas, however, the standard character of new development is just the opposite: low density, decentralized residential and commercial uses extending out into the countryside.

One of the reasons for the expansion of low-density development in rural areas is the need for rural landowners to develop their properties to raise funds for retirement, health care, or other family needs. Tools have been developed in other states that allow rural landowners the flexibility to choose to develop, or to sell the development rights on their land to another landowner who can apply them to a more compact development proposal.

For example, a landowner with 100 acres in a 2-acre zoning district would normally be permitted 40 or 50 homes to be built on his property. Instead of selling land for development, this "sending" landowner could sell the 50 development rights to another landowner, perhaps in a village, with 100 acres, thus allowing the "receiving" landowner the right to build 50 more homes on the receiving property than otherwise allowed. The sending landowner places a conservation easement on the sending property, and retains ownership and the ability to farm or use the property for other open space oriented uses. Usually, a few development rights are retained by the sending landowner to permit homes for children or others.

This approach is known as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). If applied properly in Ohio, it could allow development in township areas to be transferred to more compact development areas in villages and cities, thereby encouraging balanced growth and retaining the quality of life and watershed health in the countryside, while enhancing the small town feel and vibrancy of village sites.

The strengths of TDR as a tool for Ohio are first of all that a TDR program can be set up as entirely voluntary, with incentives to encourage participation without impinging on private property rights. TDR is typically done on the private real estate market, requiring very little in the way of public regulation and revenue. The transfer of development rights can be coupled with a variety of financing mechanisms in the development area, such as Tax Increment Financing, to provide additional incentives. Tax incentives for townships, including CEDA agreements, can be accommodated. Finally, transfer of development rights as a tool particularly suits the township-village relationship, which is so prevalent throughout the state.

While charter cities and villages can currently embark on a TDR program, townships and counties, both critical partners, are not specifically authorized under Ohio law. Statewide enabling legislation is needed to make this tool widely available in the form of quality programs.

Components of a strong TDR program include:

  • Program should be voluntary
  • Program must be tied to comprehensive planning, with designated sending and receiving zones
  • Programs should provide for receiving zones in areas with supporting infrastructure
  • Programs should allow for increased density as an incentive in receiving areas
  • Programs should provide for township tax base stability in sending zones
  • Programs should provide for density transfer across jurisdictional boundaries, and should not require contiguous boundaries of participating communities
  • Communities and counties should establish banks to facilitate transfer of development rights, similar to wetlands mitigation banks
  • Participating jurisdictions should provide incentives such as reasonable density bonuses and streamlined review processes
  • Programs should address design guidelines for desired development character in receiving zones

Finally, programs must employ a strong public outreach component, which provides for meaningful community input, and ensures that decision-makers, developers, landowners, and the general public have a good understanding of a program that can ultimately provide them with more flexibility in achieving their goals to balance conservation and development.

For more information, contact , AICP, Countryside Program Coordinator, at 216-295-0511. The Countryside Program is a program of the Western Reserve Conservation and Development Council, and this article originally appeared in the council's newsletter.


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Technique to reduce low-density sprawl: The transfer of development rights can create win-win scenarios for llandowners and communities.

National resources for TDR
OSU Extension fact sheet on TDR
Analysis of TDR policy options for Ohio


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