How to Promote Smart Growth and Prevent Urban Sprawl in Ithaca, NY

A Transfer of Development Rights Program in the City and Town of Ithaca will balance urban growth with rural preservation to promote smart growth development and prevent urban sprawl. 

In 1999, the Town of Ithaca targeted 2,800 acres of agricultural land for preservation. As the Town of Ithaca has tried with only modest success to preserve rural land, the City of Ithaca, an independent municipality that lies within the Town borders, has begun to consider modifications to its waterfront zoning laws to promote higher density development on and around Inlet Island. While developers have actively supported the proposal, other local residents have expressed strong opposition. The Ithaca Common Council, in collaboration with the Town of Ithaca, has a rare opportunity to pursue both goals – rural preservation and targeted growth – through a Transfer of Development Rights program (TDR).

Though TDR markets have been established throughout the country, this proposal primarily models its recommendations off TDR programs implemented in Warwick, PA, and Warwick, NY.  Since 1991, Warwick, PA’s TDR program has preserved over 1,300 acres of farmland.

Analysis 

TDR programs leverage market forces to promote development in designated growth areas while preserving agricultural or open space land in key preservation areas.  Land-owners in the preservation areas, or sending areas, can sell their development rights on the market, and developers with property in the growth areas, or receiving areas, can buy these development rights to exempt them from certain zoning restrictions such as height or density limits.  Increases in density in the receiving areas, then, are balanced by land preservation in the sending areas. 

The sending area would consist of the land designated by the Town of Ithaca as “Target Areas for Purchase of Agricultural Easements.”  Landowners within these areas would have the opportunity to sell their development rights in perpetuity. One credit would be awarded for every two acres of farmland or open space.  Credit prices would be determined between the seller and the buyer.  This design is modeled after the successful TDR program active in Warwick, PA.

In TDR programs throughout the country, the biggest obstacles to success generally involve a failure to determine TDR credit prices, or a lack of demand for TDR credits in the receiving areas.  By letting the market determine TDR prices, this proposal negates the former concern; and, given the existing demand for increased height limits on Inlet Island, there should be sufficient demand for TDR credits in the receiving areas. Furthermore, through its PDR program, the Town of Ithaca has already acquired the development rights for 40 acres of land. By selling these acquired easements on the TDR market, the Town could earn revenue to replenish its land acquisition fund or to finance other agricultural land and open space preservation efforts.

Next Steps 

In accordance with § 284 of New York State Town Law, the City of Ithaca can enter into an agreement with the Town of Ithaca to implement this joint TDR program by transferring rights from Town sending areas to City receiving areas. The Town Zoning Board would be responsible for reviewing and approving credit sales and would notify the City Zoning Board of all sales. Such a TDR market would grant developers greater zoning flexibility while preserving hundreds of acres of land, placating opponents of the new Waterfront Zoning plans, and placing Ithaca on the national map as a pioneer in the nascent TDR movement.

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James Underberg

James Underberg is a junior studying government at Cornell University. After interning at the NYC office of the Roosevelt Institute in 2010, he started a new Roosevelt Campus Network chapter at Cornell.

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