Horse Farms Forever conversations about conservation
Marion County’s Transfer of Development Rights Program is working well, needs minor revisions, says consultant.
Some of the biggest names in Marion County development convened Oct. 16 for what Horse Farms Forever (HFF) President Bernie Little described as a “starting point’’ for finding a better balance between development and farmland preservation.
“It’s so important to have conversations about conservation,’’ he said. “That’s the role of Horse Farms Forever. We want to act as a catalyst for those conversations.”
This Phase Two roundtable, a follow-up to the group’s April meeting, included a presentation from Rick Pruetz, a fellow in the American Institute of Certified Planners and an expert in urban planning. He is also the author of several books, including “Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights,” and is a co-author of “The TDR Handbook: Designing and Implementing Transfer of Development Rights Programs.”
Among the conversationalists were county staff and elected officials including Assistant County Administrator Tracy Straub; County Administrator Mounir Buoyones; Commissioner Michelle Stone; Jerome Feaster and Tim Gant of the nonprofit Save Our Rural Area; attorneys Fred Roberts, Robert Batsel and Jimmy Gooding; Horse Farms Forever staffers Busy Shires, Sara Fennessy and Nancy Di Maggio along with developers, conservationists, county staff, real estate brokers and farm owners.
Over two dozen attendees listened to Pruetz as he discussed successful TDR programs in other areas. The most “notably successful” one, he said, is in Montgomery County in Maryland, which includes the municipalities of Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg and Rockville, all dense urban areas surrounded by agricultural lands. Slightly more than 49,000 acres in Maryland have been preserved through its TDR program, Pruetz said.
His draft findings reports, prepared for Horse Farms Forever, summarized Marion County’s current TDR program and offered both praise and suggestions to improve the program.
Pruetz commended the Marion County TDR program for its simplicity and its benefits specifically for the equine industry here. The report’s suggestions include developing materials to explain the program for potential buyers and sellers; encouraging the use of TDRs instead of comprehensive plan amendments; and clarifying TDR requirements for sending properties with more than one dwelling unit.
Overall, Pruetz wrote, “Marion County’s TDR mechanism does not need major changes and can remain relatively simple.”TDR: An Overview
The general concept of transferring development rights from rural and agricultural lands to urban, developed areas began over 50 years ago. Properties hold certain rights for owners, including water, mineral, oil and development rights. Government programs can aid the exchange of development rights in specific areas. Programs are often used to protect greenways, natural areas, coastal lands and rural/agriculture usages.
Land owners, termed senders, in a rural area can sell their development rights to another property owner and then place the sending property into a conservation easement that permanently protects it from development. The programs benefit property owners in the receiving area because they can then increase the density of a project set within a more urban zone.
TDR first used in Marion County in July
A recent user of the TDR program was Southern Waters Capital, which purchased Transfer of Development Credits (TDC) for its Planned Unit Development project currently named Ocala South Townhomes/Longreen Farms. The parcel is at the southeast corner of SW 52nd Street and SW 60th Avenue. It expanded its original request for 288 apartment and townhome units to 360 units on about 36 acres, for high residential density with its purchase of 72 TDCs. The Marion County Commission approved the increase in density and the first use of the TDR program in July of this year.
Chief Development Officer of Southern Waters Capital Andrew Sinclair was pleased with his company’s TDR experience.
“We had to step back when market conditions changed in ’21-’22 and evaluate how the project could work,” he said. “Marion County staff told us about the TDR program,” and the company followed up with negotiating with an individual seller.
“It was a favorable outcome for us,” Sinclair said. “Purchasing TDR credits, you know what you’re getting. There isn’t much of a risk.” If more TDR credits had been available, Sinclair stated, they would have purchased more for the project.
Although first used for Ocala South Townhomes, Pruetz pointed out that any rural area in Marion County can use TDR to protect the property and generate revenue for the owner.
“Any property zoned rural can also qualify,’’ he said. “Some sending areas are inside the Farmland Preservation Area (FPA), and some are outside.”
In Marion County, Pruetz said, “It’s not a requirement that a sending property be located within the Farmland Preservation Area.”
Discussion from developers, attorneys and county staffers
Pruetz and Sinclair fielded questions from the audience, discussing the concept and benefits of TDRs and for both landowners and developers.
Developers raised concerns about how TDCs would escalate their costs. John Rudnianyn, a prominent Marion County developer and land owner, asked about density and how the cost of TDCs could work for developers. David Tillman of Tillman and Associates Engineering, echoed his question.
Attorney Jimmy Gooding, who has represented multiple developers at Marion County and Ocala city meetings, asked about the political aspects of preserving FPA versus simply requesting an urban residential density zoning for projects.
“Could you have achieved the same thing by going for urban residential zoning?’’ he asked. “Did politics mandate that you go the TDR route instead of trying for urban residential that would give you twice the density?”
Some attendees from the development community questioned the validity or need for a TDR program and asked about whether one in Marion County has value.
Attorney Robert Batsel expressed concern that, “It seems to me that TDRs artificially create a lower density” than what a city or county will actually allow. So, he asked, why not just go with the higher density in the first place?
The conversation ranged from topics like how to properly appraise a property with and without active TDRs; how the cost of TDRs would affect a project’s profitability for the developer; that TDRs have both a monetary and environmental benefit for area residents; that TDRs are “perpetual easements;” and whether Marion County has a need for the program.
Gooding acknowledged some would think his comments were “not nice” and said, “I think the TDR program is a solution looking for a problem. I think we do not have the need for conservation easements in the Farmland Preservation Area because of the extensive regulations that Horse Farms Forever has gotten our county commissioners to adopt. Furthermore … what we’re doing so far is protecting FPA property that we would have no hope of ever developing… Density is what we want in an urban area.”
If a developer has to pay for additional density, they will pass on that cost to buyers, he said.
“Why are we doing a wealth transfer from home buyers in the urban growth area to rich horse farmers out in the Farmland Preservation? is what a cynic might say,” Gooding said. He went on to acknowledge that TDRs are a reality in the current market and praised Pruetz’s report and felt it was a good starting point.
Buoyones said, “I’m very interested in this discussion. We have a very generous urban growth boundary (UGB). If we don’t do another change, we still can provide 50,000 lots in the UGB. There are opportunities for developers to maximize the use of certain property. There are opportunities if we work together,” he said, while acknowledging not everyone can be completely happy.
Other ideas and suggestions
One item of discussion was a TDR “bank” that would act as a clearinghouse for buyers and sellers, and perhaps even holding the TDCs for participants. Having a TDR bank is a standard element among some of the successful TDR programs in the country. Marion County does not have such a bank now.
Little spoke up and said empathetically, “The board of directors of Horse Farms Forever has been adamant; they do not want to serve as a bank mechanism for this TDR program. It’s not within our mission. And based on my conversations with the county, they absolutely do not want to be a clearinghouse. Most likely we could create another not-for-profit and figure out a way to have a clearinghouse.”
One concept that was briefly floated during the session was “step-down” zoning or buffer zoning, which would allow for lower density of housing butted directly against current agricultural or rural land. The county would need to research the idea before it could be implemented, but it could be another way to preserve the more rural areas of Marion County.
The zoning would also help horse farm owners whose animals may be particularly sensitive to the noise and disturbances that would come from an apartment complex or shopping center being located directly next door. That type of zoning could also help avoid the current land use and zoning that allows for 1,200+ households to be built directly next to five and 10-acre horse farm parcels, as has happened with multiple projects on the west side of SW 60th Avenue.
Horse Farms Forever is planning a third meeting about TDR in the future, and will be hosting its annual Conservation Summit Nov. 16 at Ocala Breeders Sales. World-known photographer and author Carlton Ward will be appearing to speak about the Florida panther and how the greenway projects have helped multiple species of plants and animals in the state.
You can register at horsefarmsforever.com/event/conservation-summit-2023