Orange County, Florida, population 1,393,000 (2019), surrounds Orlando and is home to retirement communities, golf resorts, and tourist attractions including Universal Studios and Walt Disney World. In 1997, the county adopted a TDR program aimed at promoting conservation in conjunction with the development of Horizon West, a 23,000-acre area planned for mixed-use villages and a town center, each surrounded by green space. The property owners here partnered with Horizon West, Inc. and joined with Orange County to develop the Horizon West plan.
As it appears in January 2021, Orange County’s Article XIV, Division 3 Transfer of Development Rights in the Village Land Use Classification states that the TDR program is one tool, but not the only tool, designed to preserve agricultural land, natural resources, and green space. A specific area plan (SAP) designates sending areas (including greenbelts and wetlands), receiving areas, overall village density, and open space. Transfer of density within a village must conform with the SAP.
Sending areas include wetlands and upland greenbelts, a term that includes green space and wildlife corridors within a village as well as perimeter open space intended to establish each village as a separate and unique place. TDR allocation ratios vary between the five villages and one town center. In Lakeside Village, upland greenbelts can generate 11 TDRs per acre and wetlands can produce one TDR per 3.5 acres preserved by easements or covenants. In Bridgewater Village, upland greenbelts can generate 17.1 TDRs per acre and wetlands can produce one TDR per 2.9 acres.
Receiving areas are in village centers and other areas established by each SAP. In 2021, the code included 16 density tiers with baselines ranging from one unit per acre to 25 units per acre. Unlike most TDR programs, this ordinance requires TDRs to reduce as well as increase density. For example, in a tier with a baseline density of three units per acre, a 20-acre site could develop 60 units without TDR. However, 11 TDRs would be needed to increase density to 71 units or reduce baseline density to 49 units.
Deviation from baseline density differs depending on whether the receiving site development is exceeding or falling short of baseline density as well as which density tiers apply to the receiving site. In a tier where the baseline is two units per acre, TDR can double density to four units per acre. But in a tier with a baseline density of 12 units per acre, TDR can only add eight units per acre for a maximum density of 20 units per acre. In the highest density tier, the baseline is 25 units per acre and TDR cannot be used to exceed baseline. Each development that uses TDR to exceed baseline must prepare a report demonstrating that the proposed transfer and all cumulative transfers will not cause the maximum capacity of the receiving site’s neighborhood school to be exceeded.
A different set of calculations apply to receiving site projects proposing lower than baseline density. For example, in a tier where the baseline is two units per acre, TDR can reduce density to no less than one unit per acre, a 50 percent decrease. But in a tier with a baseline density of 20 units per acre, TDR can reduce density to no less than 16 units per acre, a 20 percent decrease. Each development that uses TDR to exceed baseline must prepare a report demonstrating that the proposed transfer and all cumulative transfers will not cause the attendance at the neighborhood school to drop below its minimum enrollment.
Over time the county has amended this code section by adding additional tiers with higher baseline densities. In 2012, the code included five receiving site categories with baselines of two units per acre on the low end and 12 units per acre on the high end of the density range. As noted above, the code now has 16 density tiers topping out at a tier with a baseline density of 25 units per acre, a density that would not be achievable in 2012 even with the use of TDR.
The county prepared an assessment of the Horizon West planning area in 2012. At that time, 75 percent of the planning area was still used for agriculture or characterized by vacant parcels under 270 different ownerships. By 2012, 5,810 dwelling units had been built, with about half in single-family residences and another 25 percent in townhouses. Some subdivisions approved for construction by various developers were only partially completed or not started at all. The assessment primarily attributes the slow progress to the real estate downturn caused be the Great Recession.
The 2012 assessment reported that the TDR program had been hampered by regulatory changes and market preferences. For example, the code was changed to eliminate the requirement to use TDR for townhouses and the assessment notes a past market preference for larger lots. The assessment also observed that the demand for TDRs is limited by the capacity of each neighborhood school. The report states that 1,904 TDRs were “accumulated” in Horizon West as of 2006 (Orange County 2012). Linkous and Chapin (2014) reported no TDR activity as of 2014.
Orange County. 2012. The Horizon West Retrospective: An Assessment of Florida’s First Sector Plan. Accessed 2-5-21 at HW_Retro_Report_April_6_2012.pub (orangecountyfl.net).
Linkous, E. and T. Chapin. 2014. TDR Program Performance in Florida. Journal of the American Planning Association, 80:3, 253-267.