Transfer of Development Rights in U.S. Communities: Evaluating Program Design, Implementation, and Outcomes

In September 2007, Resources for the Future and the University of Maryland – Baltimore County partnered to evaluate the design, implementation, and outcomes of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs in communities across the U.S. The report is the result of a comprehensive research study involving conversations with local planners, consultants, land-use attorneys, and land trusts in the case study of several communities. The report offers an overview of land preservation, zoning, and TDRs in the U.S. It describes how TDRs can be implemented, and provides an in-depth analysis of ten different TDR program case studies - summarizing the background, key features, results, and the successes and challenges of each program. This report can be used as a resource for state, regional, and local governments and other partners evaluating market-based tools to adapt to climate change impacts like sea-level rise and flooding by conserving open space and ecosystems. 

The case studies discussed in the report include:

  • Calvert County, Maryland: Maintaining Flexibility in Land Uses
  • Montgomery County, Maryland: Linking TDRs to Bold Downzoning 
  • St. Mary’s County, Maryland: The Problem of “Free” Density and TDRs 
  • Charles County, Maryland: Problems with TDR Supply 
  • Queen Anne’s County, Maryland: Dual Programs with Divergent Outcomes 
  • Malibu, California: State versus Local Control 
  • Collier County, Florida: Downzoning and Bonus Densities 
  • Sarasota County, Florida: Planning for “Build-out” 
  • Chesterfield Township, New Jersey: Using TDRs in a Master Planned Development 
  • King County, Washington: Providing Incentives for Municipalities to Accept Density

Based on the case studies, the authors make a number of overall findings on the success of TDR programs in the U.S. including that as a land-use tool, even the best-designed programs have disadvantages that go hand-in-hand with their advantages. The advantages of TDR programs discussed in the report include that these programs: can preserve land without expenditures of tax dollars; give developers and landowners more flexibility than strict, mandatory zoning or other regulatory mandates; have the potential to compensate landowners for downzoning or otherwise restricting uses on their property for conservation purposes; and can simultaneously accommodate growth and preserve land from development. On the other hand, the disadvantages identified include: that program and market outcomes are uncertain; more development may occur as a result of program incentives; and programs can be difficult to design and implement and require significant investments in ongoing analysis and management to be successful.

The authors suggest that the first step to designing and implementing a successful TDR program is ensuring that there is an active market for development rights, which requires an understanding of existing housing and land values; designating “receiving” areas where there is a demand for increased density above baseline zoning levels; developing appropriate controls to ensure market stability; and gathering and sharing information to make the market work. The authors conclude the report by suggesting that communities consider developing a well-designed and implemented TDR program in conjunction with other land-use policies in order to achieve a community’s long-term goals and vision.


Publication Date: September 2007

Related Organizations:

Related Toolkits:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Best practice
  • Case study
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

Go To Resource