County offers $750,000 to help Sammamish TDR program – strings attached

King County has offered the city of Sammamish $750,000 to help create a program which aims to protect environmentally sensitive and significant land.

King County has offered the city of Sammamish $750,000 to help create a program which aims to protect environmentally sensitive and significant land.

But as inherently good as it may seem on the surface, Monday night’s study session of the City of Sammamish Council showed that there are many complexities to be considered before the city commits itself to a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.

In a TDR transaction, a developer buys TDR credit from the owners of land which has been earmarked by the city for protection, whether it be a working farm or a sensitive wetland. This site is known as the sending site.

In this way, the owners of that land receive financial compensation for giving up their right to development.

In return, the developer receives special allowances for, say, exceeding density restriction or access to additional square footage, at a designated development site. This site is known as the receiving site, and in the case of the city of Sammamish, we are talking mainly about the new Town Center.

The City of Issaquah recently used a TDR program to protect land around the Issaquah Creek, a vital salmon habitat.

But the success rate for TDR programs historically isn’t high, as proponents struggle to come to terms with putting a monetary value on protected land and converting this into developer privileges.

It requires cities like Sammamish to strictly prioritize their goals, whether they be the provision of affordable housing, protection of land identified as an erosion hazard, the establishment of green corridors, or the protection of agricultural properties. Sooner or later, one will need to come before the other.

The jockeying of those priorities has already begun, and there are those that feel the strings attached to King County’s contribution of $750,000 will unfairly skew those priorities.

Darren Greve, who runs the King County TDR program, told the council on Monday that the contribution would be at least partly contingent on the city identifying certain rural lands and farms in King County as sending sites.

The protection of these areas, notably working farms, is a priority for the county.

Jim Osgood and his wife Susan Richardson, who own a parcel of land in Sammamish where development is not allowed due an identified erosion hazard, spoke at Monday’s meeting, and expressed concern that properties like his would be overlooked when the city came to identifying sending sites.

“I am concerned that there are only 750 – 1,000 TDR credits needed for the Town Center development,” he said. “This is not very much to go around.”

The competition to be recognized as a sending site is fierce – owners of non-buildable land like the Osgood’s have little other way of being financially compensated for lost development opportunities.

And there will be a limited number of sending sites needed to provide all the developer incentives required for a project like the Town Center.

“We had development opportunities, but we watched them disappear, supposedly for the public good,” Jim Osgood said. “We are now asking that we identified as a sending site.”

He added that allowing King County to dictate a number of sending sites located outside of the city would “effectively gut the Sammamish TDR program.”

“King county will most likely control between one-third and one-half of the potential receiving credits needed for the Town Center and therefore significantly limit the amount of property within the city that could be conserved, or landowners who could be compensated for the taking of their property rights.”

“To be put lower on a priority list behind King County priorities would seem like some sort of betrayal,” Richardson said.

Earlier Greve had said the county would provide half of the $750,000 up front, but would need a guarantee that rural lands in King County would have priority in terms of being recognized as sending sites.

When questioned by some councillors how this priority would affect the city’s priorities, such as the provision of open space and protection of wetlands and green corridors, Greve said that the King County lands should “at least be able to compete on a level playing field.”

Sammamish resident John Galvin was particularly suspicious of the King Country offer, describing Greve as “a smooth salesman.”

“Machiavelli would have made good use of you,” he said, before asking aloud to all assembled “Is this a three-quarter of a million dollar bribe?”

City of Sammamish Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol said earlier that he felt that TDR programs were having greater success of late, as cities learned from the mistakes of those before them.

“My own recommendation is that there is strong merit (in a TDR program),” he said.

As to a prospective partnership with King County, Gurol said it was likely that development outside of Sammamish would have an impact on the city anyway, in terms of, for example, increased traffic.

“We’re talking about development rights that would have been used outside the city anyway, and bringing them into Sammamish,” he said.

“We certainly won’t have any shortage of sending site opportunities, probably more than we know what to do with. The issue will be can we create enough receiving sites to absorb them.”

The city has already begun to identify the redevelopment of the two shopping centers along 228th Avenue, Pine Lake Village and Sammamish Highlands Shopping Center, as potential receiving sites in the future.

Earlier, councilwoman Nancy Whitten led a call for serious investigation of the differences between ‘net or gross evaluation methods.’

For example, does a landowner who owns four acres of land, only one of which is environmentally sensitive, receive TDR credit for the entire four acres (gross method), or just the one acre? (net method.)

This is a decision that will eventually have to be made by the councillors themselves, and will be a point of contention in future TDR discussions.