Douglas County, Nevada, population 48,905 (2019), lies partly within the Sierra Nevada mountains at the California-Nevada border and extends east to include farmland in the Carson Valley. The westernmost portions of Douglas County are within the Lake Tahoe watershed and consequently under the jurisdiction of the TDR program managed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. However, Douglas County also manages a separate TDR program aimed at preserving resource lands in its Agricultural designation (A-19) and its Forest and Range designation (FR-19).
Douglas County’s original TDR program, launched in 1996, languished primarily because the TDR allocation ratio made TDRs too expensive for receiving site developers to afford. Under the initial formula, sending site owners could transfer two TDRs for every 19 acres of permanently preserved land. In addition, developers could originally gain density by using planned developments in the receiving areas, a loophole that the county later closed.
In 2001, Douglas County brought the program to life with amendments that increased the allocation ratio. In the A-19 zone, sending site allocation was changed to nine bonus TDRs per 19 acres plus seven additional TDRs for 19 acres when at least half of the 19 acres is located within the 100-year floodplain as mapped by FEMA. Sending site owners can transfer another seven TDRs per 19 acres by restricting the transfer of surface and groundwater irrigation rights from the sending parcel. The county board can add another TDR per 19 acres when owners grant permanent public access easements to bodies of water, public lands, or historic sites. By foregoing onsite development, the sending site owner also gets to transfer the unused base unit. Using all of these options, a sending site owner can transfer 25 TDRs per 19 acres. Another 20 TDRs can be transferred per 100 acres from sending site parcels at least 100 acres in size.
There are fewer allocation options in the FR-19 zone. Here, one bonus TDR can be transferred per 19 acres when at least half of the 19 acres is located in the 100-year flood plain. The county board can add another TDR per 19 acres when owners grant permanent public access easements to bodies of water, public lands, or historic sites. By foregoing on site development, the sending site owner also gets to transfer the unused base unit. Using all of these options, a sending site owner can transfer three TDRs per 19 acres. Another one TDR can be transferred per 100 acres from FR-19 sending sites at least 100 acres in size.
The receiving areas are mapped and each TDR allows one dwelling unit above baseline density. The price of TDRs are negotiated between buyers and sellers.
The 2001 code changes produced a robust TDR market for the next eight years. In 2002 alone, over 1,262 TDRs were certified, representing 2,177 acres of deed restricted land. As of 2009, 4,003 acres had been placed under easement and 3,921 TDRs had been certified, of which all but 206 TDRs had been transferred. Of the total acreage preserved, 2,892 acres, or 73 percent, are in floodplains, an indication that the allocation formula is implementing the goal of Douglas County’s Living River policy of retaining rivers in their natural state and allowing water to access the floodplain.
Since 2009, the program has seen very little use and the county has recognized the need to make further changes. As early as 2007, Douglas County began thinking about various modifications to its TDR program. Consideration was given to allowing properties not zoned A-19 or FR-19 to become sending sites if they are located on hillsides or within floodplains. The 2011 Master Plan also noted that all 4,003 acres preserved as of 2009 were located in the Carson Valley watershed and that the market could be improved with a master plan amendment allowing TDRs to be transferred between the Carson Valley watershed and the Topaz watershed. At that time there was no demand for TDRs from the Topaz watershed because the 1,322-acre receiving area was not yet under development. Master plan drafts since then have called for consideration of a requiring TDRs for proposals requiring rezonings and the possible formation of a Douglas County TDR bank.
A 2020 draft of the county’s forthcoming master plan observes that outside the 3,705 acres of undeveloped receiving area land, developers do not have to buy TDRs when their rezonings are approved. The 2020 draft allows readers to draw the logical conclusion that developers are avoiding the receiving areas and using upzoning outside the receiving areas to gain bonus density for free rather than paying for it. The draft then repeats the 2011 master plan by calling for consideration of requiring TDRs for all of the additional units gained by rezoning requests as well as the possibility of forming a county TDR bank.