Agoura Hills, California

The City of Agoura Hills, population 20,537 (2000), is located between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills, 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Much of the land within the current city limits had already been developed or approved for development by the time Agoura Hills was incorporated in 1982. Consequently, a primary goal of the new City was the preservation of the remaining undeveloped hillsides.

California poppies paint the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains south of Agoura Hills.

To achieve this goal, Agoura Hills zoned a considerable amount of hillside land as open space, which allows limited residential development at a maximum density of one unit per five acres. In addition, the City adopted regulations for hillside properties which limited development potential as the slope of the parcel increased. In 1987, the City decided to provide some mitigation for this density limitation by adopting a transfer of development credits ordinance.

The Agoura Hills ordinance defines a development credit as a potential entitlement to build one dwelling unit on a sending site; this potential entitlement can only be exercised when the development credit is transferred to a receiving site. Sending sites must be zoned Open Space. This zone allows one dwelling unit per five acres. The additional hillside restrictions can further reduce the number of credits available for transfer based on a slope-density formula; for example, a lot with a slope of more than 35 percent must provide 20 acres per dwelling unit. The number of credits available for transfer is equal to the number of units allowed on the sending site, representing a one-to-one transfer ratio.

The receiving sites must be in one of four residential zoning districts. Transfers are approved as part of a Development Agreement involving both the sending and receiving parcels. In considering a proposed transfer, the Planning Commission and the City Council must make the following findings: that the receiving site can accommodate the proposed development and still meet all applicable code requirements; that the sending site will be preserved as open space; that the transfer conforms to the general plan; and that the receiving site development will be compatible with its surroundings.

When a transfer is granted, the development credits for the sending site must be extinguished. The sending site must be maintained in a natural state unless the City grants a conditional use permit allowing compatible uses such as watershed protection, pasture and trails. For certain uses, an open space easement must be recorded to ensure that the parcel will remain as open space in perpetuity.

Transferred development credits cannot be used to increase the density of the receiving site more than 20 percent higher than the density allowed by zoning for that site.

In addition to the slope-density formula discussed above, the City’s hillside regulations discourage the development of ridgelines and require that an increasing percentage of a parcel must be retained for open space as the slope of the parcel increases. Development in these hillside areas is only allowed by either a conditional use permit or an architectural review approval. These requirements should provide some motivation for the owners of potential sending sites to transfer development credits rather than build on site.

On the other hand, the Agoura Hills TDC program does not offer a bonus in its transfer ratio and the density on the receiving site is not allowed to increase more than 20 percent as a result of transferred credits. In addition, the City offers other means for developers to increase density; for example, the City’s Cluster Development Ordinance offers density increases to projects in return for on site open space preservation as well as certain aesthetic enhancements and infrastructure improvements. The City also uses specific plans to achieve the same results as the TDC program.

In a February 2005 update, Mike Kamino, Director of Planning and Community Development, reported that the TDR provisions of the code had not changed since Saved By Development was published and that the program had still not experienced any transfers. He added that Agoura Hills had adopted an open space action plan in which City staff approaches property owners and encourages them to voluntarily donate land to the City for tax benefits. The City then transfers the property to a public parkland agency such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy with a conservation easement. As of 2005, nine such transactions had occurred yielding roughly 700 acres of permanently preserved open space.