For the week of March 17, 1999  thru March 23, 1999  

Hooks could defeat idea intended to stop sprawl

A bill that would allow property owners in agricultural areas to transfer development rights to developers in other areas is merrily making its way through the Legislature.

Lovers of open space, defenders of family farms and ranches have seized on HB 323, which authorizes transfers of density rights, as the way to stop suburban sprawl. Passing the bill will be easy. It needs only the nod from the Senate and the governor’s signature. Making density transfers work is another matter.

As Idaho has grown, officials have been beset with new subdivisions proposed for hay and barley fields.

In Blaine County, officials have searched desperately for a way to save the area around Timmerman Hill from becoming a sea of rooftops. They have been caught in the center of a nasty storm between farmers and developers.

Farmers fear neighbors in suburban-style developments will want to restrict farming because of noise, dust and operations at odd hours. Developers insist on the right to subdivide.

Pelted with threats of lawsuits, county officials have been talking about a transfer plan for more than two years. A density transfer program could silence the storm—if it works.

However, there are a couple of big hooks that could prevent success.

For density transfers to work, cities must be willing to accept increased densities inside or near their borders. Otherwise, the programs will be just another black hole for local planning wonks.

Judging by the recent fight in Ketchum over increased densities in the Fields at Warm Springs, gaining acceptance may not be easy. In fact, some cities may be more inclined to want to transfer some densities of their own than to accept new ones.

A strange provision could set up the whole program for failure. As it’s written, HB 323 would force developers to use the density rights they acquire within 10 years—or the rights will revert back to the land from which they came.

Currently, the law cannot force anyone to develop property no matter what the density. The reversion clause makes no sense because it could force development in a bad economy. This could make purchasing development rights unattractive.

On the flip side, it could mean an undeserved windfall if densities revert. Worse, properties that had been protected from development could suddenly be threatened again.

Density transfers are a great idea, but bringing people together to make the concept work is going to be the real challenge.


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