Northampton, Massachusetts

The City of Northampton, population 28,549 (2010), lies 15 miles north of Springfield and 100 miles west of Boston. The community wants to preserve open space, agricultural land, natural areas and historic landmarks. Consequently, in 1993, Northampton adopted provisions in its zoning code which allow for the transfer of development rights from land designated as a Farms, Forests & Rivers Overlay District to land designated as a Planned Village Development Overlay District.

So far, the Farms, Forest & Rivers Overlay has only been applied to one site, a former state mental hospital. This mental hospital dates from the mid-19th Century and includes hundreds of acres of farmland; the hospital patients tended this farmland as a form of therapy. The hospital served as a model for other mental hospitals in the northeastern United States and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The overlay designation was applied to the hospital site to protect the open space surrounding the historic buildings.

Except that the code section has changed to 350-17.3, the TDR provisions in the Northampton zoning ordinance in effect in November 2011 are identical to the 1994 version. Consequently, the process description below is the same as the case study that appeared in the 2003 book Beyond Takings and Givings.


Under the Northampton TDR program, potential sending sites for transferring development can only be located within the Farms, Forests & Rivers Overlay District. The goals of this overlay district include the protection of sensitive open space and ecologically-important features as well as the preservation of farms, forests and river corridors. There are four types of land uses allowed in this zone:

  1. Agriculture and forestry;
  2. Residential development granted a Special Permit for Cluster Development or Planned Unit Development on no more than 25 percent of a parcel as long as it minimizes disruption of view corridors, environmental impact and the loss of agricultural productivity;
  3. Roads and driveways; and
  4. Recreational facilities covering no more than 25 percent of a parcel.

The TDR provisions of the Farms, Forests & Rivers Overlay District require the Planning Board to grant Special Permits for transfers of residential units if specific transfer criteria are met.

  1. The number of units which can be transferred is the either the number of units already approved for the sending site by a subdivision or special permit or 60 percent of the number of units which potentially could be allowed by zoning, whichever is greater.
  2. Development rights may not be transferred from land which is already precluded from development by deed restrictions or other restrictions.
  3. The transfer must end in the permanent preservation of the sending site through a Conservation Restriction or Agricultural Preservation Restriction or by deeding the land to the City.
  4. Development rights can be transferred from a sending site and held indefinitely before being used on a receiving site.

Potential receiving sites are located in Northampton’s Planned Village Development Overlay District. This Village Overlay is designed to create a center of diverse economic and community activity. The Overlay restricts residential density by imposing a minimum lot area of 4,000 square feet plus 1,000 square feet per residential unit. Any number of residential units from sending sites in the Farms, Forests & Rivers District may be transferred by right to receiving sites in the Village Overlay as long as all development regulations applicable to the receiving site are met, including the density restrictions.

The Northampton Code allows more density on receiving sites than developers typically need. However, the Code also restricts residential projects to no more than 30 percent of a given development; developers would rather have projects that are 90 percent residential. The ability to exceed the 30-percent-residential restriction is designed to motivate developers to use TDR in Northampton’s program. In turn, the City of Northampton recognizes the need to provide services to accommodate the added residential component; however, the City is willing to provide those additional services in return for the open space acquired by way of TDR.

Program Status

As explained above, the Farms, Forests and Rivers Overlay district has only been applied to one site to date, a 19th-Century state mental hospital surrounded by farmland used in the treatment of the patients. The Overlay District was applied to save the farmland. However, while the details of the transfer mechanism were being worked out, the State of Massachusetts stepped in and permanently protected the farmland as open space, eliminating the original purpose for the program. Today, this open space is used as the Northampton Community Garden and several soccer fields.

According to Wayne M. Feiden, Director of Planning and Development, the need for new applications of TDR was also reduced in the 1990s by a relatively low rate of growth, which reduced the demand for additional density. Nevertheless, in 2005, Mr. Feiden reported that the City was continuing to keep the TDR option in the code because of the possibility of identifying additional sending and/or receiving areas in the future.