Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — King County, Washington: Transfer of Development Rights Program

The King County Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program in Washington State uses a unique market-based tool to achieve long-term planning goals and incentivize development in strategic areas that can be coupled with other legal and policy tools as a part of comprehensive coastal retreat strategies. King County created the TDR Program in response to state growth area management requirements and objectives. Municipalities and unincorporated areas across the county can voluntarily choose to participate in and integrate the necessary provisions into their local codes. Municipal programs are then administered individually according to local laws and an interlocal legal agreement with King County. Participating local governments designate two areas "sending areas" — typically farmland, forest, open space, or priority natural resources areas — where they want to limit new development; and "receiving areas" in mostly urban areas where existing services and infrastructure can accommodate growth. Landowners in sending areas can sell their development rights to project proponents in receiving areas who can then use those rights to increase the size or density of a development project.

Between 2000 and July 2019, 144,290 acres of rural and resource lands were conserved and protected through the King County TDR Program. As a result, more than 2,400 potential dwelling units have been relocated from rural to urban areas. Washington State created the Landscape Conservation and Local Infrastructure Program to support TDR Programs like King County’s by financing infrastructure development and other improvements in receiving communities to ensure these areas can keep pace with population growth. The King County TDR Program provides one example of how several types of land acquisition programs and funding sources can be leveraged to achieve the benefits of both conservation and new, more resilient development. In a managed retreat context, TDR Programs modeled after King County can be used to preserve lands for ecological benefits through conservation easements, while ensuring new development is concentrated in areas that are less vulnerable to flooding and coastal hazards, such as sea-level rise and storm surges.


This case study is one of 17 case studies featured in a report written by the Georgetown Climate Center, Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas: Lessons and Tools from 17 Case Studies. Each case study tells a different story about how states, local governments, and communities across the country are approaching questions about managed retreat. Together, the case studies highlight how different types of legal and policy tools are being considered and implemented across a range of jurisdictions — from urban, suburban, and rural to riverine and coastal — to help support new and ongoing discussions on the subject. These case studies are intended to provide transferable lessons and potential management practices for coastal state and local policymakers evaluating managed retreat as one part of a strategy to adapt to climate change on the coast. 

For additional case studies and more information about managed retreat, also see Georgetown Climate Center’s Managed Retreat Toolkit.

Publication Date: July 15, 2020

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