Last Friday, Jim Bacon posted an item on Albemarle County’s proposed transfer of “development” rights program that generated several interesting responses. In the third comment Larry Gross asked what we thought of TDRs. We are getting behinder and behinder but have not written on this topic recently and were trying to find time for a short post. Then along comes C. P. Zilliacus.

Zilliacus nailed the topic. Montgomery County, MD, the nation-states most widely heralded example of TDRs, is a strategic flop.

The TDR sending area has become a McMansion / Hobby Farm zone. This low density urban area has raised the cost of housing in the Maryland portion of the National Capital Subregion. It has also made it harder to get from jobs in the Core of the Subregion to scattered aggomerations of dwellings that approach affordability in Frederick, Washington and Carroll Counties and in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The TDR receiving areas are no different than other badly conceived urban agglomerations.

Unless there is a sound regional strategy to create settlement patterns in balance with mobility facilities and is a strategy that recognizes the need for a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside, the result is unsustainable.

As noted in The Shape of the Future, TDRs (and the other tactics in the generic class we call Transfers of Property Rights or TPRs) are just tools. In the hands of the current governance structure and with a vacuum of rational regional resource allocation, TPRs are blunt instruments that cause more damage than good.

That is true for most of the “land use control” tools as noted in “The Role of Municipal Planning in Creating Dysfunctional Human Settlement Patterns” at


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)



  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Thanks EMR – and you confirmed my fears unfortunately.

    It appears that these “tools” have become is..a new way to provide land and tax shelters for the wealthy and wannabes…..

    Green/Blue/woods/water in the backyard verses a neighbors deck festooned with lawn chairs and a barbeque that looks suprisingly like the one you have.

    National Park land.. such as Battlefields has always been a popular option.

    It appears that what Conservation and TDRs have become is thinly disquised methods to provide new “product” for the market ..

    .. and … paid for by all taxpayers…

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I don’t have a problem with the concept of TDR’s.

    But so far we have polluted the idea by trying to control the market for them. I should be able to buy OR sell a TDR here on the farm, and use the money or proceeds from development as I see fit to improve the remainder of the farm.

    Wit regard to the Maryland situation, wasn’t the original idea to create aclear edge? EMR is right, more stuff has sprung up beyond the “Agricultural Reserve”, but it includes as many new jobs as it does new housing. It looks to me as if a better explanation is that you now have a reseve area with two clear edges: one south and east, and one north and West.]

    Whether we are talking about jobs or open spaces, neither one is of any value if we can’t get to them, or if they are privately held when we do. That’s why we have equal employment opportunity laws. Unfortunately we don’t have equal open space opportunity laws.

    As an example, last Sunday’s paper had an article about the conflict for play space in Arlington between young athletic adults, and childrens’ play grounds, and dogwalkers.

    Even if we do away with all property rights and allow the government to make all the decisions, the government will make the decision we want, or we will throw them out. And whatever we get will still be paid for by all tapayers.

    If TDR’s are bought and sold on the free market, then how are they paid for by taxpayers? Some taxpayers will get less expensive smaller and more densly constructed homes closer to jobs (all maybe’s, and probably all temporary) and some will have larger acreage than they might otherwise be able to afford. If they can’t afford them, then gues what? They will be broken up and sold anyway.

    As usual EMR is making the utterly unproven contention that some kind of overarching and unbreakable government plan will turn out a better result.

    I don’t think so. But I will agree that if public money is disappearing into TDR’s, then I’d rather see that money just buy public lands.

Leave a Reply