Pismo Beach, California

The City of Pismo Beach, population 8,640 (2009), is located on California’s Central Coast, 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The City consists of a seven-mile long strip of land flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and steep coastal mountains on the other. In 1983, the City adopted a Transfer Density Overlay zone to preserve scenic resources and open space by permitting density to be transferred to areas where development would create less impact. Pismo Beach’s 2011 zoning code retains the original TDR provisions. Consequently, this case study duplicates the profile found in Beyond Takings and Givings.


The Pismo Beach program identifies four Transfer Density Overlay Zones. One of these zones occupies a relatively flat coastal bluff top between the shoreline and U.S. Highway 101. The other three Overlay Zones include hillside land in the coastal mountains inland from U.S. 101. Within these overlay zones any lots can theoretically be either sending or receiving sites for density transfers. However the Pismo Beach Code specifies that sending sites must actually be feasible for development; density cannot be transferred from unbuildable sites including:

  • Bluff retreat zones within 25 feet of the edge of the bluff top;
  • Areas with development hazards which cannot be mitigated;
  • Lots with slopes in excess of maximum buildable limits;
  • Waterways and wetlands; and
  • Other unbuildable parcels as described in the City’s General Plan and Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan.

An applicant for density transfer must demonstrate that the proposed sending site is not just buildable, but also that transferring development from that site would increase the preservation of open space and scenic resources. To demonstrate the City’s intent, the code section on density transfer provides examples of appropriate sending areas:

  • Land well suited for public access easements;
  • Bluff retreat areas more than 25 feet inland from the edge of the bluff top; and
  • Areas with scenic and open space value which may be subject to noise impacts and hazards (but which are nevertheless build-able).

Density can be transferred to any lots within the same Transfer Density zone or any other Transfer Density zone. The program provides a transfer ratio of one-to-one; the number of development rights available for transfer is equal to the number of dwelling units precluded from development at the sending site.

The proposal can be denied if it is determined that the transfer of density would allow a development on the receiving site which is too dense or which does not comply with the requirements of the Local Coastal Land Use Plan in terms of density, scale or bulk. In fact, the ordinance specifically states that total densities “cannot exceed the number of units allowable on the buildable portion of properties as defined in the General Plan/Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan.”

Program Status

The Pismo Beach program experienced a few transfers in the mid-1980s. However, as reported by City Planner Carolyn Johnson, there is relatively little undeveloped land left to which development rights can be transferred. Furthermore, the one-to-one transfer ratio may reduce the motivation for sending site owners to participate. In 1994, Johnson stated that only one application for the transfer of a single unit was made in the first half of the 1990s. In a 2001 update, Johnson reported that no new transfers occurred between 1994 and 2001.