The notion of transferring development rights from one property to another is said to have originated in the ashes of postwar England and has been discussed in planning circles ever since.

In the United States, TDRs have been used to restrict development in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, to preserve an environmentally sensitive section of Florida and to save New York City's Grand Central Station. The principle was applied a decade ago in Washington when Dupont Circle office builders acquired unused development rights belonging to the Columbia Historical Society, which has used the proceeds to maintain its 19th century headquarters.

In Anne Arundel County, planner Thomas L. Osbourne said "we decided not to go with TDR. It seemed so complicated, where rights leave a property and become a piece of paper and you must designate receiving areas. It's rare to find a community that will say, 'Yes, we'll take more density to preserve another area.' " Instead, Anne Arundel downzoned its agricultural zone to allow only one lot per 20 acres. That action is being challenged in court.

In Howard County, the idea was pushed by County Council Chairman Ruth Keeton of Columbia and opposed by farmers who spoke against any mandatory program of farm preservation and mounted a tractorcade in protest. Among the few supporters at the 1981 public hearings was Melissa Banach, a Columbia resident who works at implementing the TDR program for the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Calvert County is the only other area jurisdiction to adopt the TDR program but strictly on a voluntary basis. In 1980, a farmer sold his TDRs to a developer, in two stages for $1,200 and $1,500 each. The developer planned to apply them to land he owned elsewhere, but the housing market plunged and the homes have not been built.