Articles from the MnAPA April, 2000 Newsletter

Purchase of Development Rights: A New Land Conservation Tool for Minnesota
Washington County Establishes Purchase of Development Rights Program
Been There- Done That

Purchase of Development Rights: A New Land Conservation Tool for Minnesota

In the midst of responding to current development pressures, Washington County, Minnesota, is looking ahead, to a time when residents can count on at least some of the county=s special places and views to remain forever, and not be replaced by the next development.

Washington County recently became the first local government in Minnesota to adopt a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) ordinance. PDR ordinances were specifically authorized by the state legislature in 1997 (MN Laws Chapter 216, sections 135 and 138). This ordinance establishes a program where the county can pay landowners to voluntarily and permanently protect the resources on their property by placing a conservation easement on the land.

The PDR program results from a five-year effort to protect natural areas, agricultural land, special views, and other open space that began with the adoption of the county comprehensive plan. The plan gave direction to county staff to investigate PDR as an option for the protection of open space. Starting in 1998 staff worked with the Green Corridor Collaborative, a multi-agency group led by 1000 Friends of Minnesota, on a project to develop methods for protecting green corridors of valued open space and natural resources in Washington and Chisago Counties. Funding came from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources. This collaboration resulted in a map of high-priority areas for protection (the AGreen Corridor Opportunity [email protected])and the development of the PDR program. Chisago County, which was also involved in the Green Corridor project, has been working concurrently toward a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.

Residents in Washington County showed strong support for open space protection by speaking out at comprehensive plan meetings, Green Corridor project meetings, and in response to a county-wide survey in 1998, which indicated support for public funding for the program.

Residents were also involved in the development of the ordinance. The consulting firms of BRW and Biko Associates were selected by the county to facilitate a task force for the development of a draft ordinance and program guidelines. The task force, composed of public officials from cities and townships, landowners, and agency representatives met at frequent intervals over four months. The task force created a process for accepting and reviewing applications, a tool for prioritizing parcels, and recommended funding sources. Citizen involvement will continue in the implementation of the program, through an expanded Parks and Open Space Commission that will act as the PDR Advisory Committee.

Trade-offs and Choices

Many PDR programs exist nationwide, and most of them focus primarily on protecting agricultural land. In Washington County, however, there was a strong desire to protect important natural resources. The 1998 survey showed the highest level of support for protecting natural areas B woodlands, land along waterways, important wildlife/plant habitat and sources for drinking water B all with over 64% support. Scenic vistas, historic sites/landscapes and farmland all received lower levels of support, although still above 50%.

Given the uncertain future of agriculture in Washington County, the task force debated at length over whether the PDR program should even include farmland. Ultimately, they decided that most rural landscapes, and many individual parcels, are a [email protected] agricultural and natural areas that cannot easily be separated. However, they structured the ranking process so that natural resource values would receive priority.

The Program

The PDR program is entirely voluntary; the landowner decides to apply. The following factors must be present before a property may be considered for purchase of development rights.

The property must fall within the mapped AGreen Corridor Opportunity Area,@ as defined through the Green Corridor project;
The property must equal or exceed the minimum lot size of the applicable zoning district, unless it fills a significant gap between, or is adjacent to, other protected open space;
The parcel must have some development rights remaining under current zoning.
Parcels are ranked according to a set of criteria that include assign points for natural resource, agricultural, and spatial values. For example, points are awarded for areas of substantial forest interior, erosion-prone soils and steep slopes, large blocks of active agriculture, and prime or significant farmland soils. Proximity to parks or other protected open space, planning and zoning and local preferences are also considered.

The selection process includes an initial screening and ranking of applicants, followed by site visits by the PDR Advisory Committee and more detailed rankings. The end result of this process is a list of recommended parcels. These parcels are then reviewed by the County=s Real Estate Acquisition Committee and easement values are determined. The County may select one of several methods for determining the value of a development rights easement: a full appraisal of each parcel or establishing a set price per development right, based on zoning, sample appraisals and assessor=s data.

Finally, the County will make offers to landowners. If an offer is accepted, payment options may vary. Installment payments rather than a Alump [email protected] may have tax advantages for landowners and will enable the County to protect more parcels with limited funds.

What activities can occur on a property once its development rights are sold? The property will be covered by a permanent conservation easement, the terms of which may vary from parcel to parcel. At a minimum, residential development and non-agricultural commercial and industrial development will be prohibited. Easements might also require preparation of conservation or forest stewardship plans, allow additional farm buildings, or allow remodeling, replacement or enlargement of existing buildings up to a specified percentage increase. Easements will be periodically monitored with site visits to ensure continued resource protection.


The PDR program is currently in a pilot phase (see article by Jane Harper, page ). If voters approve a referendum this November, continuing funding will be assured. The hope of the program is that in 2020 you will be able to drive or bike through rural areas of Washington County and see distinct communities surrounded and linked by natural areas, open space and agricultural land.

For more information about the Green Corridor project contact 1000 Friends of Minnesota at 651/312-1000 or The draft PDR ordinance and related land protection tools can be viewed on this web site under “Green [email protected] The final ordinance and guidelines as adopted by Washington County can be viewed at

Jean Coleman (Biko Associates) and Suzanne Rhees (BRW) were consultants to the PDR task force and staff in developing the draft PDR ordinance and program guidelines.
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Washington County Establishes Purchase of Development Rights Program

The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on February 8, 2000, to adopt an ordinance to establish a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program aimed at preserving open space in the County. The Program would allow the County to preserve natural habitats, scenic vistas, environmentally sensitive lands and farmland in a designated “green corridor.” When implemented, Washington County’s program will become the first county-level PDR Program in Minnesota.

Under the Program, willing landowners would be paid not to develop their land. The idea is to protect these lands in a contiguous corridor. “Residents continually tell us in our County surveys that open space preservation is the top environmental priority for action in Washington County,” said Board Chair Dick Stafford. He continued, “This Program can do it. It has something in it for everyone. The landowner has an opportunity to realize some of the value in their land without selling it for development. The public has an opportunity to preserve the natural beauty of the County that makes it a desirable place to live. The Government continues to collect taxes from the land.”

The Program initially will be funded with a $150,000 grant from the State of Minnesota through the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources and $150,000 of County matching money. This November 7, voters of Washington County will be asked if they would approve an additional property tax to provide ongoing funding for the Program.

Multiple surveys over the past decade have shown growing support of residents to increase taxes to protect the County’s drinking water, woodlands, and wildlife. Commissioner Myra Peterson stated, “It is time to go forward with this program to protect open space. The County will be working with local communities to gain consistency between this program and the Comprehensive Plans of the County and local governments.” Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek added, “This is one of the most important programs that the County has undertaken.”

The initial $300,000 will be used to pilot test the Program during 2000. The County would focus first on lands adjacent to waterways, recreational trails, parks and other public facilities. Qualifying landowners who would like an application packet are invited to call (651) 430-6000. Please consult the County web site at for further information about the Purchase of Development Rights Ordinance and to view the “green corridor” map.

Jane Harper is Physical Development Planner for Washington County, and will administer the PDR pilot program. Contact her with questions at [email protected]
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Been There- Done That

There is a great temptation for planners. First, when faced with a problem, we want to find the solutions that worked either in another location or perhaps in another time. We have been there and done that, and achieved a measure of success. All that remains is to apply that old solution to the new problem. Since no amount of planning is equal to dumb luck this approach sometimes works. We look smart. People may begin seek our advice on applying this solution to their problems.

Often, the new problem is not exactly like the old problem and the solution must be remodeled to fit. Again, it may work and we look smart. The rest of the time, we are able to point to the differences in today’s problem and look slightly baffled as to why the tried and true solution isn’t working this time.

This great temptation has another very different outcome. When faced with a problem and a previously attempted solution, the response is this. That solution has been tried before and it didn’t work; therefore, it should not be tried now. We have been there and done that, and it didn’t work then, so it won’t work now.

Variations on this theme include: “but we’ve always done it this way”, or “but we’ve never tried that before”, both ways of staying stuck in some “been there, done that” time.

The successes and failures in planning – great and small – are instructive. We can learn every time we have “been there/done that” and build up a storehouse of knowledge. That’s called experience. It has been said that everything has been thought of and the real trick is to think of it again. Maybe so. I believe it is more important for past experiences to teach us how to think rather than what to think.

I believe it is important to examine a need or problem or set of circumstances from two perspectives. How is this similar to or different from past needs or problems? How is this a new need or problem? Ask unexpected questions. Look at it from different angles. Focus on it. And then, unfocus on it to see what is behind (like those magic eye pictures that I can never see).

Don’t give in to the temptation to intone “been there, done that” or any of its variations. Don’t be afraid to use tried and true solutions. New is not always better. Don’t be afraid to think up a new solution. Old is not always better. Do be willing to listen, learn, and recommend what your professional training and experience tell you is best.

V. Gail Easley, AICP, is a planning consultant, based in Crystal River, FL. She is known for seeking innovative approaches for growth management and land development regulations in Florida and throughout the country. Reprinted with permission from the Florida Planner.

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