Pierce County, Washington

(Profiled 2-18-21)

Pierce County, Washington, population 904,980 (2019), stretches from the west side of Puget Sound 60 miles east into the Cascade Mountain Range. The center of the County includes Tacoma and other rapidly-growing urban areas in the greater Seattle region. But the western side of Pierce County consists largely of lightly populated peninsulas and islands while the eastern half features Mount Rainier National Park, the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest, and several wilderness areas. Despite the relatively high percentage of preserved land, Pierce County and many of its incorporated cities have preserved additional land using multiple approaches including TDR.

The Pierce County TDR program is designed to preserve farmland, forest land, public trails or the habitat of endangered species.

In 2007, the County adopted a TDR program that conserved 90 acres in its first two transactions in 2009. In 2011, the county established administrative procedures for tracking and banking TDRs. In 2012, the county preserved 120 acres of farmland and used the resulting 73 TDRs as the initial deposit in its TDR bank. The Pierce County Council adopted revisions to its TDR ordinance in 2013, 2016, and 2017. The program description below uses the code that existed in October 2020.

Pierce County’s TDR code aims to permanently conserve resources lands, including forestry, agriculture, trails, habitat, open space, and rural land in general. Some land is eligible to become sending sites based on its zoning as Agricultural Resource Land (ARL) or Forest Lands (FL). Properties can also qualify by being in rural zoning districts, identified for trail development, determined as having habitat for endangered or threatened species, or specified within an interlocal agreement. Land within urban growth areas or designated as urban or rural shoreline can also qualify if it is threatened with development within ten years, included in an inventory of open space, and providing recreational activities, such as golf and soccer, that do not require intensive development.

The conservation easements needed to sever TDRs from sending sites generally allow uses consistent with the purpose of its site’s zoning. For example, the easements placed on sending sites zoned ARL permit agricultural uses consistent in that zone. In addition, conservation easements placed on sending sites zoned FL must be accompanied by an approved forest stewardship plan. The easement must also identify any development rights that the sending site owner chooses to retain for future development.

Generally, the number of TDR available is determined by the onsite development allowed under the site’s zoning. However, sending sites zoned ARL within two community planning areas as well as urban growth boundaries can yield one TDR per acre rather than one TDR per five acres. Likewise, in some areas, the maximum density allowed under the previous zoning allows an allocation of six TDRs per acre rather than the one TDR per five acre allocation that would typically apply to land zoned ARL.

TDRs can be transferred to receiving sites in other jurisdictions in accordance with an executed interlocal agreement. The City of Tacoma and Pierce County signed an interlocal agreement in 2012. As detailed in the profile of Tacoma, that city uses TDR to protect city landmarks, preserve habitat within the city, and conserve resource lands in King and Snohomish counties as well as preserve farmland under Pierce County jurisdiction in the Puyallup Valley and forest land zoned FL throughout Pierce County. The Pierce County TDR Technical Oversight Committee makes recommendations on all interjurisdictional transfer proposals. Interjurisdictional transfers are not allowed if the receiving sie jurisdiction objects.

Land under Pierce County jurisdiction can become TDR receiving sites if part of an urban project or comprehensive plan amendment involves increased density. Land proposed as an urban growth area expansion and annexation are guided by an interlocal agreement between Pierce County and the affected city or town.

The number of bonus dwelling units allowed by TDR is calculated by subtracting the original (pre-transfer) units from the final (post-transfer) units and dividing by a conversion factor specified for each of 25 different final density categories ranging from one unit per acre to 25 units per acre. The conversion rate increases as the final density increases. For example, a one-acre site with an original density of four units per acre and a final density of 14 units per acre would require two TDRs because the difference of ten bonus units is divided by five, the conversion rate for the 14-unit per acre final density category. The conversion rate tops out at eight for projects within the 25-unit per acre density category.

The TDR Technical Oversight Committee can lower the required number of TDRs if a receiving site development has made or is planning to make significant infrastructure improvements near the receiving site. Conversely, the TDR Technical Oversight Committee can increase the required number of TDRs if a receiving site development has been relieved from making infrastructure improvements because the state or county has made or is planning to make significant infrastructure improvements near the receiving site.

Developers can achieve bonus development potential on receiving sites by buying TDRs from sending site owners or the Pierce County TDR Bank. If the bank does not have sufficient credits in stock, developers may also provide funds for the bank to buy the necessary TDRs at a cost determined by the TDR Administrator in consultation with the TDR Technical Oversight Committee.

The bank sells TDRs for the current fair market value as set by the TDR Technical Oversight Committee. The bank uses TDR sale proceeds to facilitate the TDR program, including executing TDR purchases and sales, retiring debt incurred by PDR programs, providing amenity funding pursuant to interlocal agreements, marketing, procuring appraisals, and reimbursing governments for program administration.

The bank cannot buy TDRs for more than fair market value as determined by an appraisal that subtracts the value of the land with the rights removed from the pre-transfer value of the land.

Pierce County can motivate cities and towns to accept TDRs by offering amenity funds, typically used for additional transit facilities, parks, road/sidewalk improvements, public art, and community facilities. The interlocal agreement controls the type, amount, and timing of amenity funding.

In 2016, the program accomplished its first inter-jurisdiction transaction which saved farmland in Pierce County and allowed an increase of 21 units to the Stadium Apartments receiving site in the City of Tacoma. As of January 2021, the Pierce County TDR program had saved approximately 375 acres of farmland.