Blaine County sold three transferable development rights at auction last week, a sign of life for the long-dormant program aimed at guiding density in unincorporated land south of Bellevue.

The Dec. 11 sales were the first stand-alone cash transactions in the program’s history, according to county Land Use Director Tom Bergin.

Transfer of development rights, or TDRs, were adopted in 2006 as a way to maintain open space, agricultural land and wetlands below Baseline Road, while pushing new building closer to cities and existing infrastructure in a “designated growth zone” north of Pero Road.

Back then, in exchange for a downzone allotting one unit per 40 acres—half as many as were allowed on most lots before—landowners gained the option to sell off (or “transfer”) the right to develop the potential units they lost somewhere else.

For the sellers, it means money in their pocket; for the buyers, it’s the ability to, essentially, create a second lot and build—if they own or want to buy land in the receiving area. Ideally, the market would be liquid; anyone could buy a TDR, and resell it at will.

But the market never materialized. Two years after the ordinance took hold, the Great Recession dried up investment in development—and with it, demand for TDRs. On the supply side, landowners didn’t know what they were worth, and didn’t sell.

“There was all this momentum, and debate and planning—and then the recession hit,” county Planner Allison Marks said. “No one seemed interested in investing in development, especially using this unknown program.”

After a failed auction in August, that changed on Tuesday, Dec. 11. The county, which had received three TDRs as part of a deal for easements with the Wood River Land Trust, successfully sold them off. Two went for $23,000 each; a third fetched $32,000.

“This is pretty exciting,” Marks said. “It’s a way to bring TDRs to light again. What it means is confidence is back. People understand what the program is, and how they can use it.”

Marks is already seeing some momentum, telling the Idaho Mountain Express that she has received “quite a few” phone calls inquiring about TDRs in the past week.

The Land Trust has a few more that it may be willing to sell, too, according to Executive Director Scott Boettger.

“This is kind of a big step,” he said Monday. “It’s something we can use to balance growth in our valley. If we can keep those areas open, and not just zone down, we can protect our resources and still acknowledge the need to grow.”

Future sales likely won’t be so public. Transactions will take place between private landowners, based on their own negotiations, according to Commissioner Larry Schoen.

“I’ve always maintained that the program is not as complex as people made it out to be,” Schoen said. “It’s fairly straightforward—as long as the buyer and the seller can agree on a price. It’s like anything else—it’s worth what you’re willing to pay for it.”

Bergin estimates that at the program’s founding, about 1,500 TDRs existed in the designated sending area. (The number has shrunk since as landowners have limited potential density under conservation easements, eliminating accompanying TDRs.)

That probably won’t translate to 1,500 new homes south of Bellevue. County code stipulates open space requirements and minimum lot sizes for owners seeking to subdivide using a TDR.

But Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she hopes more people take advantage of the tool to develop smaller, cheaper lots—and ease the county’s housing crunch.

“We thought they were likely worth around $30,000, but it was never tested,” she said. “Now, the sales show it. Hopefully, by setting a market value, people have more confidence, and we see more movement.”

In the future, the board could open up the program to other areas.

“We had always hoped to cooperate with cities, and make this part of annexation,” Schoen said. “TDR receiving areas belong in areas where higher density is appropriate.”

Those talks—including discussions to incorporate TDRs into areas of city impact—never materialized.

Now, Schoen said he hopes the auction reminds Blaine County of the program, and its potential for landowners.

“It’s a positive step,” he said. “Essentially, it means you can create a new lot for $32,000. I think this sale shows recognition, at long last, that TDRs are a pretty good deal.”

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