MainBannerUp Home Donate Contact Us MainBannerLow TDCs 101 Policy and Legislation Community Engagement TDC Conservation Area TDC Development Areas Credit Systems Fitting the Pieces Title Restriction Resources Miistakis Institute

In this section ...

TDC101 Putting the Pieces Together


TDC programs are not legal

When the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) was passed in October 2009, the Transfer of Development Credits tool became an explicitly legal option in Alberta. However, confusion still remains about  the legal validity, with several people suggesting that TDC programs are “not yet legal.”

This confusion tends to arise from two primary factors. First, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act does two connected but separate things: enables regional planning, and enables a suite of conservation and stewardship tools (including TDCs). There is a misguided perception that TDC programs require a regional plan to be in place, but that is not the case.

Second, municipalities (the administrators of TDC programs) seek their legal direction primarily from the Municipal Government Act, and are often distracted by the TDC legality coming from another piece of legislation (ALSA).

TDC programs work in all areas

There is a pervasive sense that TDC programs can and should work in every community. This is not the case, and each community should clearly evaluate the potential effectiveness of the tool for them.

For example, TDC programs are a tool which explicitly ties conservation and development activity; there is no conservation without development, and no development without conservation. This presumes, then, that there is a certain level of pressure for private development capable of driving participation in the program, which is not the case in all communities.

Further, there may be more effective tools for achieving the same goals (though those tools must be critically evaluated). For example, Larimer County, CO uses a TDC program for conserving agricultural land, but a state-supported land purchase program for securing ecologically important areas.

There is an “average” price for TDC credits

There is no valid mean price for TDC credits that can deduced by looking at multiple programs, much as the “average” price of real estate across the province tells little about the cost of a given house. In every community, the market forces influencing land values, development activity, local economies, etc. will dictate credit prices in a TDC program.

As well, different programs use different calculations for how many credits are required to add additional units. For example, one program may see a going price of $10,000 a credit, but require only one credit per additional housing unit in the TDC Conservation Area , while another program may see a going price of $2,000 a credit, but require 5 credits per additional housing unit, making the two effectively the same.

Zoning alone can achieve the same goals

Zoning is a powerful tool available to municipalities to guide land use, development and conservation. For that reason, many people question whether anything beyond the current zoning power is needed.

It is important to note first that TDCs are not a replacement for, but rather a complement to, the existing zoning powers. The limitations that zoning provides are the following. First, it is an extremely blunt tool, and intentionally so. The purpose is to provide an overarching framework of permissible and non-permissible land uses across a municipality, not to finely tune how those broad goals could be accomplished. Second, zoning is subject to whims and interference, where the best-laid plans can be thwarted by a few politically-motivated decisions that may not be consistent with the intent of the planning. Using title restrictions provides a much higher level of certainty, for both the conserving and the developing land owners, that the valued landscape to be conserved will be conserved past the next by-law review, development application, or council election.

TDC programs must occur on one municipality

Although they occur primarily within one County, TDC programs can extend beyond administrative boundaries. Rick Pruetz, American TDR guru, identifies at least 10 programs which are multi-jurisdictional. These programs recognize the pragmatic reality that ideal sending zones may occur in one jurisdiction while ideal receiving zones are in another. These programs also face the pragmatic challenge of managing over those boundaries.

The New Jersey Pinelands program is perhaps the most complex, involving 7 counties and 33 local jurisdictions and extending over approximately 1 million acres, and must define a TDC bank, sending and receiving area criteria, cost-sharing, and other program features that are acceptable to all participating jurisdictions. In Boulder County, Colorado, the County manages (successfully) seven different inter-agency TDC agreements with adjacent cities.

TDC programs must have “TDC bank.”

A “TDC bank” is a mechanism for priming a TDC system. In cases where there is concern that buyers and sellers of credits may have difficulty connecting, a TDC program may establish a ‘bank.’ This bank can buy credits from TDC Conservation Area landowners, even though no applicable development project may at that time be seeking credits, then sell credits when a TDC Development Area project is looking for credits. This also allows developers to go to one source, rather than many, when seeking credits. In some cases, banks are set up state-wide, and have the ability to solicit and secure state funds to augment the capacity to buy credits.

TDC banks can be very useful tools, but they are not a pre-requisite for success. Many programs in the United States use a credit banking system; many successful programs do not. In some cases (such as Montgomery County, Maryland), communities have established a bank to get the program started, then eliminated it.

TDC programs require land prices be at a certain level

Because TDC programs require development activity to foster conservation activity (and vice versa), a certain amount of pressure for land conversion is required. All other things equal, that pressure will naturally generate an increase in prices. However, that does not mean that a certain price level for land is required before a TDC program is feasible.

There are a couple of related issues which may be more relevant. First, the development of credit pricing  (by whatever mechanism) must render a price that is attractive to both the buyer and the seller. It may seem that TDC programs become feasible at a certain price, but it is really more a function of the pressure for land conversion.

Second, it may be that a particularly visionary community plan seeks to include land which is relatively low in price. Such a plan may locate TDC Development Areas in places where pressure for conversion is high, and prices are responding accordingly, but then locate the sending areas in more distant places where land is of high agricultural, ecological, or otherwise value, but pressures for conversion have not yet pushed the prices as high.

TDCs cannot protect agricultural land in Alberta

A core feature of TDC programs is the ability to restrict (usually perpetually) the development potential in the TDC Conservation Areas. Because most protective mechanisms are subject to political whim, robust tools such as conservation easements are generally employed.

In Alberta, since 2009, conservation easements can now be used for the protection of “agricultural land or land for agricultural purposes” as well as the traditional role of conserving and enhancing “the environment” or “natural scenic or esthetic values.” The allowable purposes of TDC programs in Alberta mirror this extension to include agricultural land conservation.

TDC programs are a conservation “silver bullet”

Due to the multi-faceted complexity of land conservation and use issues, even the most effective TDC program cannot accomplish all of a community’s conservation goals. One striking feature of the conversations the Miistakis Institute had with participants in the successful American programs reviewed was how each program description ALWAYS included a description of a series of complementary programs offered in the County.

These programs included purchase of development rights programs, research and communication undertaken for the comprehensive plans, rural land use strategies, state-level incentive programs, multi-stakeholder advisory boards, NGO programs, etc.

The explicit and inferred message was that TDC programs are not a ‘silver bullet’ and only work when implemented in conjunction with other programs supportive of valued landscape conservation.

TDC programs are static

Those digging deeper into understanding how TDC programs work often express surprise at how dramatically programs can change over time, or have an expectation that a new program will be perfect from inception.

Although all programs are different, the programs the Miistakis Institute has reviewed have the common trait that they have evolved dramatically over time. Single programs have evolved to multiple programs; the price of credits and the methods for determining them have evolved; new sending and receiving areas have come on line; program-support structures like TDC banks have developed; etc.

The successful programs have been conscious that the changes made to improve a program are done in such a way so as not to undermine the stability of the program. This has involved such strategies as review by stakeholder committee, response to participant demand for change, adherence to comprehensive plans and broad communication of the changes.

TDCs will trigger property rights violations and compensation claims

Although this issue arises more in relation to zoning changes and municipal planning, it is raised on occasion with reference to the TDC tool specifically. Concerns revolve primarily around whether zoning changes in support of TDC programs violate property rights, or at least to the degree that some measure of compensation is required.

Because Canada does not have property rights enshrined in the constitution, the issue is less one of an inherent ‘right’ and more one of whether some measure of legal entitlement is being infringed on. Case law in Alberta has repeatedly upheld the ability of municipalities to re-zone their land base, controlling land uses in support of the public good. Similarly, the legal access to compensation does not apply to changes in zoning.

Having said that, this is an issue more of perception than reality, and that perception is vitally important. Mass down-zonings, while legal, are most likely to be politically unpalatable unless there is either 1) a deeply shared sense that the overall program is in the best interests of the community, or 2) some measure of compensatory activity (e.g., providing TDC credits in an amount equal to the ‘lost’ development potential).

Land trusts alone can achieve the same goals

There are currently approximately 12 land trusts active in Alberta, with most of their work concentrated in southwest Alberta. They do not currently have the capacity, nor the geographic breadth, to satisfy all of the land conservation needs that exist in all of Alberta’s municipalities. Nor do they have the mandate to reconcile development and conservation, as municipalities must.

Though they cannot shoulder the entire load, land trusts are a critical community with whom to partner, as they do play a significant role in community-based conservation, and can in many cases provide third-party support (e.g., holding conservation easements, providing stewardship services, contributing conservation planning expertise, etc.).



What is a TDC Program?

The Why, What, How and Who's of TDCs

Miistakis Reports

Government of Alberta


Papers and Reports

Web Resources



Support Organizations and Consultants

American Examples

Did we miss an important resource? If you know of a publication, web site, or other resource that should be here, please contact us.

Also, check out our full list of TDC Resources.