Moraga, California

The Town of Moraga, population 16,016 (2010), is located 20 miles east of San Francisco in Contra Costa County. Some of Moraga’s hillsides and ridgelines were developed prior to the incorporation of the Town in 1974. The Town wants to preserve the remaining undeveloped hillsides. Consequently, in 1980, the Town adopted a transfer of development rights ordinance. This ordinance allows up to 30 percent more density on appropriate receiving sites in return for transfers of development rights from sending sites designated for low-density or open space uses.


In the Moraga TDR program, sending sites can be any properties shown on the general plan for low density residential, (one, two, three or six dwelling units per acre), public open space-study or private open space. Under Moraga’s Open Space Ordinance, all undeveloped hillsides in the Town are limited to one dwelling per 20 acres. However, an owner of undeveloped hillside property may request higher densities, up to a maximum of five units per acre, if the parcel’s building site meets three criteria: 1) an average slope less than 20 percent; 2) geotechnical stability; and 3) the site cannot be located on a major or minor ridge line higher than 800 feet.

The Town allows the owners of sending parcels to fix the number of units which may be transferred from their properties based on a conceptual development plan for the sending site approved by the planning commission. The owner may transfer some or all of the allowable dwelling units from the sending site. The program features a one-to-one transfer ratio: the number of TDRs available for transfer is equal to the number of dwelling units allowed to be built at the sending sites.

To actually transfer the units, the owner of the sending site files a request and an application signed by both the sending site and receiving site owners. The ordinance specifies that the sending and receiving sites may be in separate ownerships. After the transfer is complete, the development potential of the sending site must be irrevocably reduced by the number of units transferred from the site. A notice of the restrictions imposed on the sending site and the extra development allowed on the receiving site must be recorded.

The Moraga TDR program only allows transfers of residential units. Consequently, the potential receiving sites are limited to parcels in zones which allow residential development, including land in the “Suburban Office” zone. However, receiving sites cannot be on land subject to the Open Space Ordinance or parcels considered hazardous for development. Since most of the bottom land in Moraga has already been developed, the potential receiving sites for transferred development are limited.

Through TDR, the density of the receiving site can be increased by 30 percent over the land use restrictions which would otherwise apply. After holding a public hearing, the Town Council may approve a proposed transfer subject to making three findings: 1) the transfer must result in the dedication, protection and preservation of open space; 2) guarantees must be in place to assure that the transfer promotes the purpose and intent of the general plan; and 3) the density allowed on the receiving site as a result of the proposed transfer may not detrimentally affect adjacent properties. In order to support the third finding, the Council can impose conditions on the receiving site development to minimize adverse effects on surrounding properties.

Program Status

Moraga has a limited number of alternative mechanisms for exceeding zoning densities on receiving sites. Receiving site densities can be increased for affordable housing; however that provision has only been used once. In another code provision, the density allowed on a site zoned for six units per acre can be increased if it is surrounded on three or more sides by existing development of a higher density. According to Associate Town Planner, Richard Hoyt Chamberlain, this second mechanism has only been used once to allow a seven-unit condominium surrounded by projects with densities of 17 and 22 units per acre approved prior to the Town’s incorporation.

However, the owners and developers of receiving sites in Moraga have typically not even achieved the density allowed under the base zoning, This is often due to geotechnical and other site development constraints. With little demand for the extra 30 percent density, a market for transferred development rights has not materialized. In addition, the number of potential receiving sites has decreased as Moraga became increasingly built-out. In 1995 Senior Planner Jean Safir reported that only one large undeveloped potential receiving site remained in Moraga.

In a May 2001 update, Senior Planner Chip Griffin reported that no transfers had occurred under the TDR program. In 2002, the Town adopted a new General Plan that strengthens the TDR code provisions. In the sending areas, the new Plan calls for the reduction of density for on-site development in hillside areas, which should increase motivation for landowners to transfer development rather than build on site. The new General Plan also calls for adoption of two specific plans, Moraga Center and Rheem Park, and identifies these specific plan areas as TDR receiving areas.