BLUFFTON - Many metro areas have long sought ways to curb suburban sprawl by directing growth inward and protecting the farms, forests and rural vistas outside of town.

But this Beaufort County town was the first in the state to try to bring the private sector to bear - to use free market forces to channel growth away from its sensitive areas, such as the May River's headwaters, and toward other sites most suitable for dense developments.

In 2007, the town created a Transfer of Development Rights program, which has been used elsewhere in the country.

This program, which allows property owners to sell or buy development rights, depending on a property's location, already has been used to prevent more than 2,000 homes from being built in areas where they could worsen the May River's water quality.

And it has led to greater density - about 324 more units - in Buckwalter Place, a new dense development of homes, shops and offices further from the river and closer to U.S. Highway 278.

But while the tool might have worked well here, others cautioned it might not be as applicable or useful for the Charleston area.

How it works

The pristine May River runs through the heart of this fast-growing town, and when officials realized that growth could compromise its water quality and shellfish beds, they decided they needed to act.

Town Council created a transfer of development rights program in 2007, right around the time state environmental officials warned that if the May River received more pollution from stormwater runoff, shellfish harvesting would be restricted there.

Kim Jones, who directs the town's stormwater management, said that was a wake-up call for a town that had grown rapidly from its historic core of one square mile to more than 54 square miles, including the Palmetto Bluff development that's two-thirds the size of Hilton Head Island.

"The May River is the literal and figurative backbone of the community," she said. "It's our identity. It's what pulls everything together."

The 2007 ordinance was designed to transfer development from ecologically sensitive areas to other areas - without increasing the town's overall amount of development.

Shawn Leininger, the town's assistant director of growth management, said the program "is another tool in our toolbox."

Since then, the town has seen at least eight transfers, mostly into a town-run "bank." The largest of these deals came almost two years ago, when the owners of Palmetto Bluff agreed to transfer 1,300 units near the headwaters of the May River to other parcels. The deal also included the donation of six acres that the town used to build a stormwater pond to reduce pollutants headed to the river.

"It wasn't without controversy and discussion," Jones said of the TDR program's beginnings. "Surely, that 1,300 units is a huge success."

Not so popular here

But talk of any Transfer of Development Rights program has been slow to catch on in the Charleston area, despite increased interest in creating an urban growth boundary.

Charleston's top planner Tim Keane said the city and county's urban growth boundary substitutes for such a program.

"You don't need a transfer of development rights, because we've said 'You can't build out there,'" he said.

But there's another problem, too, said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League. Successful Transfer of Development Rights programs need "sending zones," areas where rights will be donated and the land protected, and "receiving zones," where landowners will gain the right to build more densely than zoning otherwise would allow.

"The zoning in most areas here is at or above market. Most areas are over-zoned," Beach said.

That reduces the demand for property owners to seek to pay for the right to build more units, and those developers who want more density often feel they can seek rezoning as a special planned unit development and get it for free.

The recent Our Vision, Our Plan passed by the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments recommended the three counties implement a regional transfer of development rights program to help ensure that future growth continues in the Lowcountry tradition.

But work on such a program has not begun.

Who wants more density?

While the Lowcountry is far from seeing a regional TDR program, planners with the Berkeley Charleston and Dorchester Council of Governments are looking at a Transfer of Development Rights program to protect sensitive areas around the Charleston Air Force Base - areas that, if poorly or too intensely developed, might prompt federal officials to put the base on a closure list.

Nick Pergakes, a planner with COG, said details of such a program may be presented in public in September or October.

"It really will be up to the city of North Charleston and the county as to whether they would be willing to implement a TDR program," he said, adding they are less common in commercial areas than for residential land.

"It just gets kind of complicated because businesses want to locate around the airport," he added.

Tyson Smith, a Charleston lawyer who is working on a TDR program around Beaufort County's Marine Air Base, agreed TDR programs are complicated.

And one of the most challenging aspects has something in common with the Lowcountry's recent controversies over municipalities' "gathering places" and other efforts to promote greater density in existing areas.

"I don't know if it's a con, but the challenge in getting a TDR program set up is always finding 'receiving areas,' places where you can put more density," Smith said. "The challenge is finding places willing to take more density without going to public hearings and that sort of thing."

"In places where they have been willing to overcome that hurdle, they have been active."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.