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New fees hit new homes

December 08, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A measure expected to be adopted next week will force anyone who wishes to build a home within the City of Hagerstown to pay $8,500 that will be used to pay for new school construction or expansion.

Home builders who do not sign a contract to build a new home by midnight tonight would be subject to the fee, and must pay the amount at the time a building permit is issued.

Those who do sign contracts by midnight must receive building permits before Feb. 1 or they also will be subject to the fee, city officials said.

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The policy affects all residential building and is set to expire July 1 but can be extended if other rules to collect money for schools have not been adopted.

City Planning Director Kathleen Maher said the policy will immediately affect about 1,900 homes that have been approved, although it is not clear how many of those homes will be built within the next six months.

After several months of city staff working on the policy, the City Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the fee and related issues contained in the proposed "Interim School Impact Policy."

City officials fast-tracked approval of the policy by setting a special voting session for Dec. 14, a week before they originally had intended to adopt the policy.

During Tuesday's meeting, there was scant criticism of the policy, and none of the council members voiced opposition to the six-month plan.

"This is the very thing we've been trying to do for some time," Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said after advocating for speedy passage of the policy.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire also called for passing the policy quickly.

"It isn't like we're springing this on the public at large," Aleshire said, noting that the city has been saying it will enact a policy like this for some time.

City Attorney William Nairn said that, to be fair to developers, the city should consider lengthening the grace period between the time a contract is settled and the time the grace period ends. If they miss the grace period, it "effectively means they've lost $8,500 on a deal."

"Well, either a developer loses it, or the schools lose it," Aleshire said.

City Engineer Rodney Tissue said that developers have been told about the policy.

Only one paragraph of the policy was removed, at Aleshire's request, before sending it back for next week's approval. That paragraph said the city would not deny homes based on lack of schools as long as the county was collecting some money to go toward schools within city limits.

Between Thursday and next Tuesday's likely adoption, each builder will be limited to obtaining six building permits. Officials said they want to limit a possible onslaught of builders trying to bypass the fee.

While the city has been looking at forming its own fee structure for several months for a wide range of development-related activities, other groups, including the Washington County Board of Education and the Washington County Commissioners, have insisted the city speed its progress.

In September, school officials sent the city a letter strongly encouraging the city to explore an adequate public facilities ordinance. In October, school officials released data that showed schools in and around the city were at or above capacity.

City Finance Director Alfred Martin said that while the county excise fee is collected inside city limits, it does not provide enough money for school improvements.

The city's Interim School Impact Policy is adopting the fee structure in the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. Additionally, the city will charge 2 percent of the fee, or about $170, to administer the fee.

Martin said that the county excise tax will be included in the fee under the temporary policy, so the excise tax - most of which pays for school construction - will be included in the amount home builders will have to pay.

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