Miami-Dade County, Florida, population 2,716,940 (2019), stretches from the dense coastal cities of Miami and its suburbs into the wetlands and mangrove forests of the Florida Everglades, which occupy the western and southern half of the county. As development threatened irreparable damage, Everglades National Park was established in 1934 and is now the third largest national park in the contiguous Unites States. The park is home to hundreds of bird, fish, reptile, and mammal species, including dozens of threatened or endangered species like the Florida panther and West Indian manatee, which largely explains the park’s listing as a Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
In addition to preserving biodiversity, the Florida Everglades protects the recharge area for the aquifer supplying drinking and irrigation water to most of southern Florida and safeguards freshwater flow to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. Over long time periods, mangroves and coastal wetlands in general are able to store five times more carbon than tropical forests. Conversely, coastal wetlands release massive amounts of long-sequestered carbon when they are degraded or destroyed. Drawdown calls for the protection of the Florida Everglades in particular and wetlands in general for protecting wildlife, water quality, and storm resilience as well as sequestering carbon (Hawken 2017).
In 1981, Miami-Dade County adopted its East Everglades Ordinance, which designated a 242-square mile area contiguous with Everglades National Park area as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in order to protect water quality, flood storage capacity, biodiversity, and the economic vitality of the county and its municipalities. This ordinance included TDR provisions, which in Miami-Dade County are called severable use rights, or SURs.
The sending area for this program included Management Areas 1, 3B and 3C of the East Everglades area, with a combined area of about 45,200 acres. SUR allocations differ between these three sending areas. Management Area 1 is partly developed and property owners here can build on site at a maximum density of one unit per 40 acres although with stringent development requirements, including provisions to prevent disruption in the natural flow of surface water. However, when owners of property in Management Area 1 protect their land by permanent easement, they can sever and sell the foregone development potential at the ratio of one SUR per five acres. The allocation ratio is one SUR per 12 acres in Management Area 3B and one SUR per 40 acres in Management Area 3C. Owners of legal lots smaller than these minimums can sell one SUR per lot if they registered within one year of program adoption. Lands traditionally submerged at least three months per year are considered undevelopable and cannot sell SURs.
Receiving areas are properties with residential, commercial, and industrial zoning designations located within Miami-Dade County’s Urban Development Boundary (UDB). All Miami-Dade County zones designated for urban development can receiving SURs with the exception of the agricultural, environmental, recreation, and open space zones. In four residential zoning districts, developers can use SURs to reduce minimum lot size and minimum frontage. In four additional residential zoning districts, SURs can be used to reduce maximum coverage as well as minimum lot size and frontage. In three more residential zones, SURs can increase maximum height limits as well as density, floor area ratio, and coverage. In two additional residential districts, SURs can increase maximum height, density and floor area ratio but not coverage. In the PAD, ECPAD, and REDPAD districts, SURs can increase density by 20 percent. In the Core or Center Sub Districts of Community Urban Center zoning districts with certain designations, baseline density can be increased by up to eight units at the rate of two units per SUR. In seven commercial districts, baseline FAR can be exceeded at the ratio of 0.015 FAR per SUR in seven commercial districts and by 0.010 FAR in the OPD district.
A 2017 report explains that some zones introduced after the SUR program launched have smaller minimum lot sizes than receiving site projects can achieve with SURs. For example, the RU-IZ, RU-1M(a) and RU-1M(b) zones had minimum lot sizes of 4,500, 5,000 and 6,000 square feet respectively, while the smallest lot achievable by SUR was 6,000 square feet. As a result, developers could circumvent the use of SURs by applying for a rezoning to any of these three zones (Miami-Dade County 2017).
The 2017 report also found that SURs had not been used in Core and Center Subdistricts of Urban Centers because the code allowed considerable density there by right. The report noted that demand for SURs could be generated by reducing the baseline densities in these zones (Miami-Dade County 2017).
County policy required the use of SUR or PDR for any expansion of the UDB involving residential but not non-residential development. The 2017 report observed that the SUR program could be strengthened if the policy both specified the extent of SUR/PDR required for UDB expansion and made this requirement apply to all types of development rather than just residential development (Miami-Dade County 2017).
The receiving areas are subject to annexation by incorporated cities, thereby reducing the demand potential within the county. In response, as of 2015, Dade County allows SURs to be transferred interjurisdictionally to incorporated cities that agree to participate. The 2017 report suggests that it may be necessary to require or encourage incorporated cities to create receiving areas for the interjurisdictional transfer of SURs (Miami-Dade County 2017).
Importantly, receiving site developers can use SURs at receiving sites as a matter of right, which can reduce developer concerns about the delays, changes, and cost increases that sometimes result from discretionary approval.
A sizeable supply of SURs has been created here because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior do not include the value of SURs when these agencies buy property in the East Everglades. Consequently, these former property owners have SURs to sell. At one time, receiving area developers were able to buy SURs directly from these former property owners for roughly $2,500 each or from intermediaries for between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The 2017 report finds that this practice dilutes the value of SURs and consequently makes the TDR option less attractive to the private owners of sending area property. The report notes that the problem of low SUR prices could be addressed if the federal agencies acquired and extinguished SURs when they purchase private property, actions that would reduce SUR supply and likely increase the value of the remaining SURs (Miami-Dade County 2017).
As of January 2016, 1,116 of the 4,700 SURs available to sending sites had been applied to receiving sites. Most of the transfers have gone to residential developments. An average of 54 SURs per year were applied between 1989 and 2015, with peak years occurring in 2000 and 2006. SUR use dropped during the Great Recession and started to pick up again in 2014. A 2016 staff report recommended that the county explore the possibility of supplementing the SUR program with an agricultural TDR program and an historic resources TDR program.
Hawken, Paul. 2017. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Climate Change. New York: Penguin Books.
Miami-Dade County. 2017. Report Evaluating Existing and Potential Development Density Transfer Programs -Directive No. 152550. Memo to Board of County Commissioners dated January 23, 2017.