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Pa. officials tackle county's growing strains

July 21, 2005|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A committee of the Franklin County Council of Governments has drafted a list of legislative recommendations - including excise taxes, increased realty transfer taxes and moratoriums - to help municipalities and school districts pay for improvements to utilities, roads and school systems strained by rapid growth.

"The amount of development proposals is at an all-time high," County Director of Planning Phil Tarquino on Wednesday told about 100 municipal and school district officials from around the county.

"Today, we have a municipality that has two PRDs, or planned residential developments, pending approval consisting of approximately 1,000 lots," Tarquino said, referring to Antrim Township.

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"The growth is placing demands on existing infrastructure, water, sewer, roads, schools, emergency services, parks, human services and so on," Tarquino said.

Antrim Township Manager Ben Thomas Jr. unveiled a list of seven recommendations to help the county's boroughs, townships and school districts finance public improvements.

One recommendation calls for municipalities in designated 'growth counties or districts' to enact building excise tax ordinances.

Chambersburg Area School District Superintendent Edwin Sponseller said Washington County, Md., had adopted a per-home excise tax with most of the money going to the county school system for construction of new schools.

Chambersburg's school population increased 3 percent last year and it will cost the district $9,389 per student, while real estate taxes fall far short of paying that bill, Sponseller said. State funding of local schools was once 50 percent, but has fallen to less than 35 percent in his district, he said.

"We need some system in Pennsylvania similar to what Maryland has," said Sponseller, addressing state Reps. Patrick Fleagle, Rob Kauffman and Stephen Maitland.

Washington Township Manager Michael Christopher said his municipality on Monday adopted an impact fee ordinance of $2,714 for each housing and commercial unit to pay for transportation improvements

Another recommendation would increase the realty transfer tax on the sale of properties from 1 percent to 2 percent. Half of 1 percent would go to county government for agricultural or land preservation the other half of 1 percent to schools.

Municipalities in designated growth counties also would be allowed to adopt a residential growth moratorium when approved developments "exceed the reasonable financial ability to operate public schools and municipal government services."

Thomas said Antrim's population grew 24 percent between 1990 and 2000 to about 12,900 people and is reviewing or has approved plans for approximately 5,000 building lots.

Most of the recommendations to manage growth, however, require legislative action, Thomas said. Moratoriums and subdivision restrictions are often nullified by court decisions, he said.

"We must have the tools to affordably plan for today and tomorrow," Thomas said.

"This isn't a problem unique to Franklin County," said Fleagle, who sounded a note of caution.

"What really concerns me ... is I can't believe the price of houses," Fleagle said. "Kids are mortgaging their lives to get them.

"Every time you put on a tax like that, you're raising the price of houses," Fleagle said. "It affects not just those moving into the area, but lifelong residents."

In the ambulance service, Fleagle said there is a saying that "All bleeding eventually stops." The current fast pace of real estate development, he said, will also come to an end.

"The people that are hurt the most are the working class and the first-time home buyer," developer Greg Schellhase of Chambersburg said of impact fees.

He said his company, Enclave Holdings Limited, has built 60 single-family homes in the Chambersburg area that has been a "windfall for the school district" because only five children live in the development.

Schellhase said attempts to restrict development might be unfair to those who want to move into the county.

"Let's pull up the drawbridge ... and those people who came after us, too bad for them," he said."

Thomas disagreed, saying that in his discussions with Washington County officials, excise taxes and other measurers have not substantially slowed development, but are helping to pay for needed public improvements.

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