Churchill County, NV

Churchill County, population 23,982 (2000), lies in West Central Nevada, 40 miles east of Reno. The County encompasses 4,900 square miles of deserts, farmland, mountains and wetlands. It is home to portions of the Toiyabe National Forest, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe as well as various military installations, including the Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS).

Churchill County’s TDR program preserves farmland surrounding Naval Air Station Fallon, thereby protecting both its biggest economic generator, agriculture, and its second-biggest generator, NAS Fallon.

The expansion of development from the City of Fallon could potentially encroach on Fallon NAS.  According to the Lahontan Valley News, one third of the County’s economy comes from agriculture and another third is generated by the Fallon Naval Air Station. To protect these economic assets, TDR components were hammered out over the course of a year by a working group consisting of agricultural, governmental and community stakeholders spearheaded by the Lahontan Valley Environmental Alliance.

In June 2006, the County Commissioners adopted a transfer of development rights ordinance. The ordinance’s stated objective is to encourage the preservation of agricultural lands, habitats, drinking water resource areas, flood zones and military operations buffer areas. However, news accounts suggest that the ordinance’s primary goal is the protection of 24,000 acres of agricultural land within the Fallon NAS buffer zone.


Sending sites may be parcels or portions of parcels that are at least 20 acres in size and 1) specifically designated in the County Master Plan, 2) located within a military installation buffer zone, 3) zoned for agriculture, 4) habitat for threatened or endangered wildlife species or 5) set aside as water resource areas. In addition, the Ordinance created a Sending Site Review Committee to identify other sites with special community benefits on a case-by-case basis.

Churchill County uses the term “Equivalent Residential Credit”, or ERC, rather than TDR, as the unit of measurement for transferring development rights from sending to receiving sites. The number of ERCs available for transfer varies depending on the nature of the sending site. Sending sites zoned A-5, A-10 or RR-20 and outside the urbanizing area get one ERC per four acres plus one ERC per irrigated water-righted acre. The following bonus incentives also apply: 1) 1.5 ERC per 10 acres of drinking water recharge area, flood plain or military operations buffer area; 2) 10 ERCs per parcel providing beneficial public access to recreation and open space; and 3) 1 ERC per 10 acres for sending sites of 100 or more acres. These bonuses are cumulative. For example, a 101-acre parcel zoned A-10 with 75 irrigated water-righted acres in a recharge zone providing access to a river could sell 135 ERCs. Alternatively, one ERC can be created for each parcel that could be legally created under current zoning if that number is higher than the number of ERCs calculated under the normal process.

The ordinance specifies that protection of sending areas can be achieved either by fee-simple acquisition or perpetual easement. If applicable, deed restrictions dedicating the water rights to these easements must be recorded. The number of ERCs available for transfer is established in a TDR certification letter issued to the sending area landowner. Upon receipt of this letter, the landowner signs a TDR agreement and the corresponding easements are executed and recorded.

Receiving areas include all land within the urbanizing area, as defined in the County Master Plan, with the exception of land zoned E-1, R-1 or R-2. In addition, receiving sites can be located outside the defined urbanizing area if they meet all of the following criteria: 1) Eligible for public water service; 2) Proximate to PUD or receiving site; 3) Not environmentally sensitive; and 4) Not needing public service extensions at the expense of Churchill County.

Receiving site projects are approved via planned unit development (PUD) and the development rights are considered transferred when the receiving site PUD is approved, granting bonus density based on the number of EDCs transferred from sending sites and extinguished.

The Ordinance creates a TDR Bank to buy TDRs at fair market value and sell them for at least full market value. County funds can be used for TDR purchases. The Bank can sell its TDRs selectively based on purchase price offer, volume or the ability of the proposed transfer to achieve County goals.

In a May 8, 2006 article, the Lahontan Valley News reported that Fallon NAS had budgeted $3 million for the acquisition of TDRs and quoted the commanding officer of Fallon NAS as saying that several owners of property in the Navy’s buffer zone were willing to consider selling their development rights. In a June 3, 2006 article, the Lahontan Valley News quoted County Manager Brad Goetsch as saying that several property owners were interested in participating, including two landowners who were actively involved in the development of the ordinance.

In a November 2009 update, Churchill County Planning Director Eleanor Lockwood reported that the County matched the initial NSA Fallon funding on a 50/50 basis. The Navy was also able to leverage money from the Nevada State Open Space Program. Together this funding preserved over 2,000 acres of farmland surrounding the air base. The County placed many but not all of the TDRs created by this preservation in its TDR bank. (The easements are based on an appraisal and, in some cases, the landowners retained some TDRs as part of a negotiated purchase agreement.) In the next round of acquisitions, the funding match will be 75 percent federal and 25 percent county. A dozen or more additional farm properties are expected to be preserved in 2010. The Navy is talking with the owners of potential sending sites and creating a priority acquisition list for the 2010 round of funding.

The program has had a slower start on the receiving side. According to Ms. Lockwood, a substantial number of developments were approved in 2005, before the TDR requirement went into effect. To date, only one development was required to buy TDRs. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that demand for TDRs will materialize once the inventory of approved lots is depleted. In addition, the County is now updating its general plan. The new plan will emphasize the importance of buffering NAS Fallon and creating receiving sites capable of boosting TDR demand.