Pacifica, California

Pacifica, population 38,109 (2011), stretches along several miles of the Pacific Ocean coastline 15 miles south of San Francisco. In the 1980s, the City was looking for a way to preserve coastal bluffs to create open space and also reduce the hazards associated with bluff top development. In particular, the City wanted to save a 20-acre bluff top which was zoned to allow low-density residential development. In 1988, the Pacifica Open Space Task Force Report recommended transfer of development rights and, in 1989, the City adopted a TDR ordinance. The 2011 version of the code retains the TDR provisions first adopted in 1989. Consequently, this case study largely duplicates the profile that appeared in Beyond Takings and Givings.


The TDR ordinance identifies sending areas as: land subject to landslides, floods and other development hazards; areas identified by the Pacifica Open Space Task Force Report Inventory; and other land designated as appropriate for preservation by the Planning Commission or the City Council. In addition, the Planning Commission can consider other areas proposed for sending sites by TDR applicants.

Receiving sites can be multiple-family residential zones and planned development project areas. In addition, the Planning Commission can consider other potential receiving areas proposed by applicants if certain criteria are met including: the availability of public services; the compatibility of the proposed receiving site density with the adjacent neighborhood; and the likelihood that any impacts caused by the transfer will outweigh the impacts created by the development already allowed on both the sending and receiving sites. However, transfers are specifically prohibited to parcels designated as “Special Areas” or “Open Space Residential”.

Transfer of development rights is allowed by discretionary approval of Pacifica’s Planning Commission. In considering an application, the Commission must decide whether or not the proposals for the sending and receiving sites meet the criteria of the TDR ordinance and that the transfer will result in the permanent preservation of the sending site through the recording of an Open Space or Conservation Easement. The Commission may also impose whatever conditions it considers necessary to mitigate adverse impacts which could result from the transfer.

In order to encourage transfers, projects using transferred development rights may be exempted from parkland dedication requirements, capital improvement fees and traffic impact mitigation fees. In addition, an applicant may be granted exemptions from open space, setback, coverage, landscaping and parking requirements as long as these exemptions will not adversely impact either the receiving site development or adjacent land uses.

Program Status

As discussed above, Pacifica had a particular 20-acre bluff top in mind when the TDR ordinance was adopted. The general plan designation for this site allowed low density residential. The developer pledged to donate this environmentally-sensitive sending site to the City as part of a planned development approval which granted 20 more units to a receiving site than the underlying zoning would allow.

The Pacifica TDR program has some features found in successful TDR programs. For example, it offers incentives such as exemptions from dedication requirements, development fees and specified design regulations. Nevertheless, in the first half of the 1990s, only the project discussed above used the TDR program despite the fact that there are numerous other sites in need of preservation. According to Wendy Cosin, Pacifica’s former Planning and Building Director, this lack of TDR activity was at least partly due to low demand for additional density on the potential receiving sites. Specifically, the remaining sites are the most difficult to develop in terms of site constraints; consequently, developments often do not achieve the density allowed by the base zoning.

In updates from 2001 and 2005, Planning & Building Department Director Michael Crabtree reported that the ordinance had not been changed and that the program had not resulted in any new transfers.