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Reactions are mixed to proposed building fees

October 24, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Builder Dennis Swope said he's been in the business long enough to see the ups and downs of home construction.

What he sees as another "down" could begin affecting the industry in a matter of weeks, he said.

The Washington County Commissioners are considering revising the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The changes could result in developers and builders paying $6,500 per dwelling unit if they build in areas where elementary schools are at 85 percent capacity.

Those fees would go toward adding classrooms to schools and other repairs to ensure schools can handle growth.

But what the home building industry sees as a blow, the Washington County Board of Education welcomes as a chance to stay on pace with increasing enrollment.

Director of Facilities Management Dennis McGee said Thursday the school system's enrollment has increased by 600 students in the last three years, after having no growth from 1996 to 2000.

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The school system's enrollment for the current school year is 20,336, an increase of 263 students over last year's enrollment.

McGee attributed the increase in students, in part, to the increase in the number of houses being built in the county.

He said housing starts have doubled from 500 three years ago to 1,000 last year.

The money from the APFO fee would help the School Board make the necessary improvements to accommodate growth, while allowing the school system's annual capital budget to pay for other planned school construction projects.

Under the proposed ordinance revisions, 21 of the county's 25 elementary schools would be at 85 percent capacity and eligible for APFO money.

McGee said it would be 10 years before the school system could afford a school to ease enrollment growth under the current level of capital funding the School Board receives.

School officials, citing an $80 million backlog in construction projects, have pressed the commissioners for increased funding to repair and renovate aging schools.

McGee said schools such as Pangborn and Maugansville elementary schools lack sprinkler systems, air conditioning and have very little space.

Teachers are forced to hold classes in corners of hallways and in pantries, he said.

"The health rooms are smaller than my bathroom at home," McGee said.

Swope, vice president of Home Construction Corp. in Hagerstown, said the APFO will be a burden on home buyers because developers would add the $6,500 fee to the price of their homes.

Such a fee would make it difficult for young people who aren't earning top salaries to build homes, he said.

"They can't afford it," said Swope, who also is the president of the Home Builders Association of Washington County. "They're getting priced right out of the market."

He said the average price of a home built by Home Construction is about $160,000.

"We are at a juncture right now where our county is not building homes that the median income can afford," said Debi Turpin, executive director of the Home Builders Association.

Turpin said the median household income in Washington County is $47,500.

"A lot of the people who work here can't afford to live here," Turpin said.

And if fewer people can afford to build houses, the effect will trickle down to small builders who construct only several homes a year, building officials said.

Turpin said large builders based outside Washington County wouldn't have much of a problem because they are accustomed to dealing with fees elsewhere.

"They look at it as a cost of doing business," she said.

Swope faulted the proposed APFO fee, saying it would apply to new homes, while people moving in from out of town and buying existing homes wouldn't be charged.

"They're not affected by this at all," Swope said.

The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed APFO revisions Monday at 7 p.m. in Courtroom 1 of the Washington County Courthouse at 95 W. Washington St.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said this week that a decision on the changes could be made as early as mid-November.

"We realize there's growth, but there has to be a fair way to do it," Swope said. "Nobody likes increased taxes, but that's the fairest way. Then, everybody pays."

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