Palmer, Massachusetts

Palmer, population 12,140 (2010), is a city in Hampden County although it retains the name of the Town of Palmer. In 2007, Palmer adopted a TDR ordinance designed to achieve seven purposes including the following.

  • Protect scenic and rural values
  • Protect property values and provide fair economic return to property owners
  • Foster compact development in areas served by public services and infrastructure
  • Preserve rural, historic and agricultural character by directing compact new development to areas adjacent to existing urban centers and transit routes

The sending and receiving areas are designated by map and also described in the text of the ordinance. The process starts when a developer applies for a special permit to transfer development rights from a parcel or parcels in the sending area to a parcel or parcels in the receiving area. The number of TDRs available to the sending site is calculated by deducting the land area of wetlands, floodplains and riverfront from gross acreage, subtracting 5 percent of the remainder to represent necessary rights of way and fashioning a conceptual development plan to estimate the number of lots that could be developed under existing zoning. Each developable sending area lot that is precluded from development by conservation easement can generate one TDR. A portion of the sending site’s TDRs can be transferred as long as separate tax parcels are created distinguishing the portions of sending site that are affected and not affected by conservation easements. Palmer can decide whether it wants to accept the conservation easement on the sending site or let the easement be held by a qualified not-for-profit organization.

The applicant also submits a development plan for the receiving area depicting the use of the TDRs transferred from the sending area. In the receiving areas, each TDR allows:

  • 2000 square feet of additional commercial or industrial floor area above baseline plus a 5 percent increase in building coverage; or
  • 1.2 bonus residential units plus a 5 percent increase in building coverage; or
  • 1 bonus neighborhood commercial building lot in a Traditional Neighborhood Development not to exceed one neighborhood commercial building lot per 10 residential building lots.

The TDR ordinance expresses receiving area baselines as the minimum lot size, frontage, front setback, rear setback, building coverage, building height and other development standards of the underlying zone. Corresponding maximums are also depicted for each of these development standards when receiving area projects use the TDR option. The code depicts 8 underlying zoning districts in this manner. The following table illustrates just one of these underlying zoning districts, the Rural Residential.

Standard Requirement of Underlying District Requirement when TDR Option is Used
Lot size 60,000 sf 30,000 sf
Frontage 150 ft 75 ft
Front setback 50 ft 25 ft
Side setback 30 ft 15 ft
Rear setback 30 ft 15 ft
Building coverage 50 % 75%
Height 35 ft 35 ft

In deciding whether or not to approve the special permit, the Planning Board must find that the receiving site project is code compliant and that its architecture is compatible with surrounding properties.

All TDR transactions must be reported to the city within 10 business days.

The conservation easement can be released if the land is determined to no longer be suitable for preservation as determined by two thirds of both branches of the Massachusetts general court and if the landowner buys the TDRs back from the Town of Palmer at their then current market value.

Developers have the option of complying with TDR requirements by paying cash in lieu of retiring actual TDRs. The cash in lieu amount is the cost of buying conservation easements on the amount of developable land that would otherwise have to be restricted by easement. The easement cost is determined by the Conservation Commission based on the average cost of conservation restrictions in Palmer over the prior three years.