The Cambrian

Options for development credit transfers on the table

Supervisor Bruce Gibson says expanding the TDC program would benefit Cambria’s Monterey pine forest.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson says expanding the TDC program would benefit Cambria’s Monterey pine forest.

Expansion may be coming to a county program that allows a Cambria property owner to build, in certain neighborhoods, a slightly larger home than would normally be permitted.

For that to happen, the landowner must buy “transfer of development” credits that accumulate when development rights are retired on a lot in a Cambria area that is officially designated as environmentally valuable and sensitive.

Most of those areas are steeply sloped and/or densely forested.

For now, those protected regions are Fern Canyon and certain areas that can be seen from Highway 1. The goal is to provide a visual and sound buffer between the highway and Cambria neighborhoods, formalize a trail area and use permanent conservation easements to protect the rare native Monterey pine forest and its habitat.

But in November, county supervisors directed their Planning Department to consider options for expanding the transfer of development credits program in Cambria. The study is ongoing, said planner Jay Johnson, who came to the Jan. 19 meeting of the North Coast Advisory Council.

The concept is to expand the current “sender” areas, where lots could be voluntarily retired to create TDCs, and the “receiver areas” in which the purchased TDCs could be applied to build larger homes.

In an email interview Monday, Jan. 30, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson explained that “TDCs are a useful method to protect important parts of the pine forest. The current system of retiring development potential on certain lots and allowing a slightly bigger house (where a house would be built in any case) has been tremendously successful in Fern Canyon and on the Lodge Hill slopes that face Highway 1.”

The drought has shown that there are many other areas of the forest that would benefit by having development retired.

Bruce Gibson, county supervisor

The county’s overall TDC program reduces the development potential of existing lots in outlying rural areas. In Cambria, the process involves the county, the Cambria Community Services District and the countywide Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1984 to help protect agricultural land and sensitive areas. LCSLO began conserving Cambria lots in 1986. Fern Canyon was its first project.

Since then, Johnson said, LCSLO has retired more than 350 parcels in the canyon and along Highway 1, and the conservancy says it has permanently conserved more than 15,000 acres of land in the county.

“The drought has shown that there are many other areas of the forest that would benefit by having development retired,” Gibson said. “Retiring more vacant lots would potentially allow good forest management practices to improve forest health and reduce fire danger. The cost of having slightly bigger houses would be the same.

“The other benefit of an expanded TDC program,” he said, “would be to help with build-out reduction efforts that the Cambria Community Services District has to undertake with the water (reclamation) project. If lots can be retired with TDCs, that takes some of the problem off the CSD’s plate.”

The services district has a cap of 4,650 water connections. The district’s Buildout Reduction Program, currently being revised, defines what will happen to parcels of land that won’t be connected the town’s water and sewage-collection systems.

Ted Siegler is the chairman of the services district’s Buildout Reduction Program Citizens’ Committee, a group of volunteers that has wrestled for months with the knotty problems of how many potential home sites really are left in Cambria (estimated at about 1,500), which of those lots should be retired from development, how much those lots are likely to cost and where the district might find the money to buy them.

Siegler said Jan. 30 he feels that, “if expansion (of the TDC program) helps retire more parcels, that is generally positive. But I hope the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo remains faithful to the original intent of retiring property with forest or other prime habitat as it spreads the development potential of those properties to other parts of town.”

Other possibilities

County planner Johnson was in idea-gathering mode at the Jan. 19 NCAC meeting. He said he wanted to hear what members thought about expanding the TDC program, and learn if they had any “out of the box” ideas for how to do that.

Some trial-balloon suggestions from Johnson and others included allowing apartment developers to buy TDCs to make each apartment slightly larger, or to permit construction of “secondary dwellings” that might include kitchens, where the currently allowable “granny units” do not.

Since consulting with NCAC and other community and county leaders, however, Johnson said Jan. 30 he now feels that any changes to the program should be kept “simple and straightforward.”

He said it’s “premature for us to go down the road” on those other ideas at this time. “None of those notions are on the table at this point.”

County supervisors “authorized us to look at updating the program to clarify which neighborhoods could purchase TDCs to build larger homes,” he said, “and to expand areas in town where lots could be retired.”

And that simpler concept is what Johnson anticipates will be in the proposal that, ultimately, will come back to NCAC (perhaps within the next few months) before going to the supervisors for approval.

If you go

The next North Coast Advisory Council meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, at Rabobank, 1070 Main St. For details, go to For information on the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, go to