Buckingham Township, population 20,260 (2018) is located in the middle of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 25 miles north of Philadelphia. Over half of the 33-square-mile township is in farmland. Originally, the agricultural base consisted of small truck farms serving Philadelphia. But after WW II, many farmers found it necessary to lease more land and grow field crops.
Growth rates doubled in Buckingham Township in the 1970s and the township lost about one-eighth of its farmland to development between 1967 and 1977. As a result, the preservation of agricultural land became a primary goal of the Township’s 1974 Comprehensive Plan. The Plan placed about one-fifth of the Town’s land area in a development district and the remainder in agriculture and resource protection districts.
To implement the 1974 Plan, a zoning ordinance was adopted in 1975 that replaced the previous one-unit-per-acre blanket zoning with five new zoning districts. Land in the development district was upzoned to 2.5 units per acre; but to encourage farmland preservation, the ordinance included a TDR component that allowed even more density to projects using development rights transferred from farmland. Land in the preservation district was downzoned from one unit per acre to either 0.2, 0.3, or 0.5 units per acre for on-site development. However, as compensation for this downzoning, sending site owners were allowed to transfer development rights at the rate of one unit per acre.
The original program was hindered partly because the number of transferable rights in the sending areas far exceeded the number of rights which could be accommodated in the receiving areas. Other drawbacks included low demand for higher density developments and a lack of sewers and other infrastructure in the proposed receiving areas to accommodate increased densities.
In 1991, the Township undertook a Comprehensive Plan revision designed to control growth and preserve farmland. That plan revision led to the adoption of a new zoning code. The transfer of development rights portion of the new zoning code, adopted in 1994, reduced the number of available TDRs in the sending areas. This was supported by the provision of infrastructure in the receiving sites.
The original 1975 zoning ordinance incorporated an attractive incentive to transfer development rights from the sending sites in the Agricultural District (AG) to the other four zoning districts. In the AG district, by-right development could occur on-site at relatively low densities of one unit per five acres, one unit per three acres or one unit per two acres. However, development rights could be transferred from these sending sites at the rate of one unit per acre; consequently, the transfer ratio ranged from 2:1 to 5:1. If sending site owners opted to build on sending sites, they were required to cluster new development on either 10 or 20 percent of the sending site and deed-restrict the remainder for agriculture.
When transferring development rights, sending site owners petitioned to have their land reclassified from AG-Agricultural to AP-Agricultural Preserve. The sending site owners also recorded a covenant specifying the restrictions placed on the land.
Similarly, receiving site owners were motivated to buy development rights by density increases of from 39 percent to 511 percent for receiving-site developments using TDR, depending on the type of development proposed. However, the receiving sites could only accommodate 1,862 units while the sending sites were capable of generating 12,474 development rights. In other words, there was no place to transfer the majority of the rights available in the sending areas.
In 1994 and 1995, Buckingham Township enacted significant amendments to the TDR component of its zoning ordinance. Under the new ordinance, sending sites are parcels within the Township’s two agricultural zoning districts, AG-1 and AG-2. These two zoning districts cover over half the Township’s total land area. Potential sending sites must be at least 25 acres in size and enrolled in the Township’s Agricultural Security District under the provisions of Pennsylvania state law. As of right density in the AG-1 is one unit per 1.8 acres.
To determine the number of transferable development rights available, the area precluded from development by easements and other deed restrictions is deducted from the total site area. Then, the base site area is calculated by further reducing the size of the site by the amount of acreage in flood plains, water areas, wetlands, steep slopes, and forests. The number of development rights available for transfer was originally this base site area, in acres, multiplied by 0.85. By 2020, the multiplier had changed to 0.56. In addition, one development right must be deducted for each dwelling unit located on the site.
The transfer process begins when an agreement of sale for development rights, signed by both the seller and the buyer, is submitted to the Township Zoning Officer. The applicant must also submit a proposed covenant for the sending site which limits future uses to agriculture, agricultural-related activities, and preservation of forests, fields, wetlands, and other natural resources. The development rights are not transferable until this covenant has been approved by the Township and recorded.
Special procedures apply when property owners want to transfer only a portion of the development rights from their sending sites. In these procedures, the applicants first calculate the sending area’s resource-restricted land, or land constrained by flood plains, wetlands, forests, and steep slopes. The land from which TDRs are proposed to be sold must have a ratio of resource-restricted land to a total land area not greater than the ratio of resource-restricted land to total lot area of the entire property.
When property owners want to sell development rights from a portion of their land and develop the other portion, they must submit a sketch plan showing the total number of units that could be built on the site under normal, non-TDR code provisions. Then the number of TDRs transferred off this site is deducted from that total and the remainder is the number of units that can be built on site after the TDRs are transferred.
In 1994, Buckingham greatly increased the number of zoning districts eligible to receive TDRs. Now, receiving sites can be located in the Township’s two agricultural zones, AG-1 and AG-2, as well as four residential zoning districts: the Business & Residential District, the R-1 Residential District, the Village Residential-1, and the Village Residential-2 district.
Land in the two agricultural districts, AG-1 and AG-2, can be receiving sites as well as sending sites. As mentioned above, these two zones occupy more than half the land area of the Township. By-right density in these zones is one unit per 1.8 acres. Property owners can achieve smaller lot sizes, with no increased density, by clustering development on less than half the site. However, when TDRs are transferred to the site in conjunction with clustered subdivisions, density can be doubled.
To qualify for clustering options, land zoned AG-1 and AG-2 must be at least 25 acres in size. The land proposed to be set aside as open space must have Class I, II, or III agricultural soils and be viable for farming: at least half of the proposed open space area must be in one parcel; all open space parcels must have a farmable shape with dimensions of at least 200 feet in all directions, and all open space parcels must have access to a public road and be accessible by farm equipment.
Once the receiving site subdivisions are approved, the open space parcels are precluded from further subdivision, regardless of any intervening zoning change, either through a notation on the subdivision plan or a deed restriction. Furthermore, subdivision plans must include the method in which the owner will comply with the Township’s code requirements for protecting and maintaining the open space for the preservation of farmland. The plan is considered a contract between the landowner and the Township.
Land in four residential zoning districts cannot be used as sending sites but can serve as receiving sites. In the Planned Business & Residential District and the Village Residential-3 District, the base density of five units per acre can be increased to 15 units per acre by transferring one development right for each additional unit, a 200 percent increase. Likewise, in the R-1 residential district, base density can be increased by 40 percent for cluster subdivisions using TDR. Furthermore, in the Village Residential-1 District, the maximum density can be doubled for cluster subdivisions using TDR.
Buckingham Township’s original TDR program was analyzed in a study prepared by Robert E. Coughlin in 1981. Coughlin found that 19 rights had been transferred, representing a preservation of 38 acres of land, within three years of the adoption of the ordinance in 1975. Ordinarily, this would be considered a very good start. However, Coughlin observed that the first 12 rights were sold by the president of the community organization that spearheaded the agland preservation campaign.
When he prepared his 1981 study, Coughlin concluded that the Buckingham program was hampered primarily by the fact that people wanted larger lots rather than higher density development. In the 1970s, 19 transferred rights were used to build townhouses. In 1979, these were the only townhouses in the township and they sold slowly; however, the poor marketing performance may have been caused by the project’s design and proximity to a highway as well as its density. In addition, Coughlin noted that there were no sewers in the proposed receiving areas to accommodate the transferred development.
However, despite what he considers as a moderate success for TDR, Coughlin documents that the Buckingham zoning ordinance, as a whole, was achieving many of its preservation goals. Between 1975 and 1980, almost 80 percent of new growth occurred in the development district, and deed restrictions were placed on 108 acres of farmland, mostly as a result of clustering.
In 1978, the biennial review of the TDR program produced 13 recommendations, including: reducing base density allowed in development districts; increasing the size of the development district (to improve demand for development rights); investigating ways to provide sewerage to the development district, and exploring a bond issue to finance the purchase of development rights.
As discussed above, the original TDR program, adopted in 1975, was constrained by an overabundance of development rights in sending areas and a scarcity of infrastructure in receiving areas. Nevertheless, approximately 20 development rights were transferred in the 19 years in which the original TDR program was in effect.
The revised TDR ordinance of 1994 is designed to reduce the number of rights available for transfer; by reducing the supply, the price per TDR should rise, making it more attractive for sending site owners to sell these rights. On the receiving sites, the provision of infrastructure should likewise make the purchase of development rights more attractive to developers. In addition, Pennsylvania’s purchase of development rights program has made farmers feel more comfortable about treating development rights as a marketable commodity.
In 1975, Buckingham was one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to use TDR to preserve farmland. Over time, the Township added other preservation techniques to its preservation toolbox. In 1989, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania established a farmland preservation program. With the participation of Bucks County, this program preserved its first two farms in Buckingham Township in 1991. In 1995, the voters of Buckingham Township approved $4 million for farmland preservation, becoming the first municipality in Buck County to do this. The voters approved $9.5 million more for this program in 1999. In 2008, the voters approved a third referendum by a margin of 82 percent, authorizing the expenditure of another $20 million for the preservation of farmland and open space. As of 2020, 5,312 acres of land had been permanently preserved in Buckingham Township of which 505 acres were preserved by TDR.