A once-reviled idea may need to be reconsidered

October 27, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Odds and ends from a columnist's notebook:

Remember when "impact fee" was a dirty word and political poison as well? Like land-use planning and the zoning ordinance, the idea has gotten more popular as taxpayers begin to realize that if something isn't done, a big part of the bill for new schools will be sent to them.

In the 2003 session of the Maryland General Assembly, Washington County was given authority to levy real-estate transfer and excise taxes because there's a backlog of projects needed in existing schools, not to mention space that will be required as the population grows.

And why is the area growing? Because as other counties have levied fees to control development, or at least make it pay its own way, developers have moved to areas where doing business is cheaper. Like here.


But part of the deal to get those new taxes was an agreement to revoke the authority (never used) to levy impact fees.

Now the question is: Will receipts from the excise and transfer taxes, coupled with revenue form the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, be enough?

Maybe not. During the recent discussion over whether to require developers to donate school sites, Gary Rohrer, the county's director of public works, said that the APFO fee covers the cost of construction and not of acquiring land.

My guess is that more revenue will be needed. In May, county officials estimated that during the current fiscal year that they would collect $2.5 million in transfer tax revenue, $1.8 million in excise tax revenue and $4.7 million in APFO fees.

Is that enough? In 2003, school officials estimated the cost of a new Maugansville Elementary School at $13 million. Seems like more money will have to be found and impact fees may be one source.

One of the arguments used against impact fees over the years was that it would price people out of the housing market. Where, pray tell, are those champions of low-cost housing now?

In an op-ed last Sunday, Tom Firey argued that loosening development restrictions will bring prices down, as if developers would willingly take less than the market would bear. If you're selling your house, are you going to take pity on the person who can't afford it at the listed price and accept less? Probably not, unless it's your child or grandchild.

Firey argues that Montgomery County's Moderately Price Dwelling Unit program is an inadequate answer to this problem. Briefly, it gives developers the ability to build more units if they agree to add some that are moderately priced.

It may be inadequate, but it's court-tested and has been in place for more than 20 years, time enough to work out any bugs.

Does Firey really expect the current County Commissioners to craft their own plan? They're not that adventurous. At a September forum on the subject, Commissioner Doris Nipps said that it hasn't been at the top of the commissioners' list and that "at some point in time," the county would discuss the issue with the city.

Doesn't sound like it's an urgent concern for her, does it, Tom? It would be better to borrow something imperfect, like MPDU, than to expect the current county board to craft something better.

Hagerstown City Attorney John Urner called me recently to correct a misconception I've had about the annexation process and the proposed new site of Washington County Hospital.

Contrary to what I believed, Urner said annexing the site would not allow the hospital to avoid the zoning appeals process.

It would transfer the case from the county's Board of Zoning Appeals to the city's agency, Urner said.

It is possible, Urner said, that the county BZA could grant the special exception and the city could accept it as part of an annexation agreement.

And what the hospital will be seeking is a special exception, not a variance, Urner said. The decision, he said, will not turn on whether there's been a change in the neighborhood.

Technical stuff, to be sure. But what Urner is saying is that annexation would provide no escape hatch from a hearing in which citizens could object, or even appeal the decision.

Not that the council was inclined to do that, but knowing that it's not a possibility only makes it more important for hospital officials to push ahead with the zoning process.

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