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Editorial - Revisiting impact fees

June 27, 1997

It's a measure of how short of cash the Washington County government is - and expects to be for a long time - that the idea of development impact fees is getting another hearing. That idea was political poison in 1990, when the Washington County Homebuilders placed ads emphasizing that they and "their 4,400 employees" didn't like the idea.

That was the year young Greg Snook made his first try for commissioner and was pleasantly surprised to find himself the top vote-getter, which some regarded as a warning to the incumbents that impact fees were better forgotten.

And except for local activist Ross DeMeritt and a group called Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, they haven't been discussed much in the intervening years. Until last week.

That's when Debra Bastian, the county's finance director, told the commissioners that their five-year construction plan was about $27 million short of what was needed. Bastian said the commissioners have two ways to go - eliminate or delay some projects or find new sources of revenue, like special taxing districts or impact fees.

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Snook reacted cautiously, saying he would need to see the whole five-year spending plan before deciding whether to support such fees. Commissioners Jim Wade, John Shank and Ron Bowers said they felt it was time for another look at impact fees.

We suggest they begin with a look back at the 1989 report done by the citizen group chaired by the late Keller Nigh, then examine what Frederick County has done on the issue. Nigh's report concluded that the law governing such fees is so restrictive that they wouldn't generate the bonanza everyone expected. Conversely, in Frederick County, the Frederick County Civic Federation claimed it was unfair for existing taxpayers to have their taxes raised to pay for new growth.

It's not a simple issue; at a time when the county needs new sewer customers, would it be wise to initiate a fee that might send development elsewhere? An updated study of this issue is needed to guide the commissioners' actions.

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