Summit County’s transferable development rights program makes exception for affordable housing units
The program essentially gives “free” density units to developments planning to build affordable housing units, such as the case with Trails of Berlin Placer in Breckenridge
With the natural beauty as grand as it is in Summit County, it’s no wonder the community has so many transplants. But as more people move here and as more businesses open up shop, a Catch-22 slowly starts to present itself: Should developers continue to build to accommodate the higher demand for community resources — such as child care facilities and housing — or should these resources be relocated elsewhere to protect the splendor of the county’s outdoor playground?
This is a question that county and town leaders are often faced with and, to help solve the problem, the transferable development rights program was born. Launched around 2000, the county program is meant to protect the community’s natural resources by allowing development rights to be voluntarily transferred from rural, backcountry areas to urban areas.
“We created this program to incentivize those homeowners who own those mining claims to transfer their development right, or sell their development right, to a developer so that the developer would utilize those development rights in a more appropriate place, like in an urban area,” Summit County Community Development Director Jim Curnutte said.
To date, the program has protected approximately 2,000 acres in the upper Blue River basin and generated over $4 million to be recycled for more open space purchases. Not only that, but it’s effectively increased the amount of density allowed in certain developments.
Curnutte explained that when the county adopted zoning in 1969, the entire community was divided into various parcels that had limits on how dense future developments could be. Curnutte said some areas likely had more than enough density allowed on a parcel, whereas other parcels might not have enough. Through the transferable development rights program, these density units could be bought and traded.
For example, if the owner of a backcountry parcel wanted to ensure that their land was protected for years to come, they could sell their transferable development rights to a developer. This developer would then add those extra density units to their property, meaning it can now be a larger development than a zoning’s original intent.
Curnutte explained that this was done for projects like the Village at Wintergreen in Keystone. The zoning for that parcel of land originally didn’t allow the project to hold as many apartment units as it currently does, but through this program, the housing project could be larger.
Curnette said the program is all in an effort to control the growth of the county.
“The county’s master plan talks about growth and development and controlling growth and preserving community character,” he said. “So the master plan in the county talks about how we shouldn’t up-zone property, and if somebody does want to up-zone a particular site, they should be required to transfer the density from somewhere else, and that way we don’t have a net gain.”
There is one exception: affordable housing projects. Because these housing developments are so critical to the success of the county, they do not need to transfer density units through this program. Curnutte said these projects essentially get “free density.” This was the case with the Trails at Berlin Placer in Breckenridge.
“That’s how we incentivize developers to provide some affordable housing is that it’s essentially free density,” Curnutte said. “So you would have to bring in density for your market-rate units and transfer it in, but if you’re going to do some component that is affordable housing, you don’t have to transfer that density in.”
The Trails of Berlin Placer property was originally zoned for one unit, but the developer wanted to “up-zone” it to 14 units of free-market density and 21 units of affordable housing. Thirteen of those units had to be transferred in through the county’s program, but the remaining 21 were added on without additional cost.
The program isn’t always guaranteed to work, though. Mike Dudick, co-owner and CEO of Breckenridge Grand Vacations, said he has a couple projects that could utilize this program, but whether those come to fruition depends on whether government leaders believe a certain parcel should get more density units.
“The county and the town (of Breckenridge) have the capacity to place additional density on parcels if they choose to do so, whether it comes from the (transferable development rights) bank or they just create it out of thin air,” Dudick said. “They have the capacity for workforce housing.”
Dudick said the company has taken advantage of this program at least once in its history and has previously been denied extra units for housing, which was the case for its gondola lots in Breckenridge.
“We asked them for more density to build workforce housing, and they said no because they didn’t like it at that site in the core of town,” he said.
That’s not to say that the company doesn’t offer employee housing. Dudick said Breckenridge Grand Vacations currently houses roughly 12% of its workforce in 68 bedrooms. This includes Moose Landing as well as a few units at Peak 7, Peak 8 and Grand Timber Lodge.
Curnette said most of the developments that have added affordable housing units through this program are based in Breckenridge. Mark Truckey, the town’s director of community development, did not return a request for comment with a list of some of these projects before this article was published.
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