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Washington County mitigations of growth taxes are a scandal

January 07, 2007|by Joe Lane

The cost of new classroom space in Washington County is between $30,000 (elementary) and $50,000 (high school) dollars per seat. Currently, we have an excise tax that collects, at most, $10,000 of this cost. Taxpayers are currently subsidizing new development to the tune of $20,000 to $40,000 for every new house approved. Last year, there were more than 1,000 new homes approved in this county. This is a $20 million to $40 million dollar shortfall that should have been collected from developers. This is why our schools are overcrowded. This is why our taxes go up. The new commissioners need to charge developers the full cost development imposes on our community. Full fare. No exceptions.

The first thing the new County Commissioners need to do is eliminate the APFO mitigation process. What is an APFO mitigation process? Why should it be eliminated? When written, the APFO was the most effective tool available to control growth when the infrastructure (schools, roads sewer etc.) could not handle the growth.


The previous commissioners, with help from the state delegation, rewrote the APFO, effectively gutting it in the process. Compliance with the APFO is now at the discretion of the commissioners (read: optional). In this article I will explain the APFO, the effects of the rewrite and how the commissioners have been exempting developers from the costs of roads and schools. This is costing taxpayers millions and is degrading our quality of life.

Development should pay for the cost it imposes on our community. Previous commissioners had the wisdom to pass the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The APFO prevents new development from occurring when the schools, roads and other "infrastructure" cannot accommodate new development. If the developer is willing to pay for the infrastructure, then building can proceed. The original APFO did not allow the commissioners to "exempt" development from the APFO. Throughout their term, the previous commissioners and their accomplices in the state delegation have revised and re-revised the APFO. Each revision gave the commissioners more power to "mitigate" and then outright exempt development from paying for schools and roads. The "mitigation" process relegates the Board of Education to a mere advisory role, no matter how overcrowded the schools become. It is difficult for me to see how the taxpayer benefits from these revisions.

The first use of the newly granted mitigation power was to provide for the needs of the developer of the Westfields project. This developer made the unfortunate miscalculation of trying to build in the South High feeder system. The South High feeder system is far above capacity. South High has more trailers (read: "World Class Portable Classrooms") than any other high school. Most middle and elementary schools that feed South High are above capacity as well.

The APFO would not allow the developer to build until the schools could handle the increased enrollment.

The development was stopped. The APFO had stopped additional overcrowding in the South High feeder system. The commissioners then came to the rescue of the developer. The APFO was revised, giving the commissioners the power to "mitigate" and the commissioner got busy "mitigating" the Westfields development.

The commissioners negotiated a deal where the developer pays for a new elementary school and nobody pays for the middle and high school. That's right, nobody! I guess this new development will not have middle or high school aged kids. I asked the commissioner who negotiated the deal, "Mr. Kercheval, who will pay for the middle and high schools?" He wrote me that the middle and high schools would require more development to pay for them. So, the solution to problems created by excessive development is - more development! This is the mindset of pro-growth commissioners.

Mitigation, by definition, allows development to continue when the roads or schools cannot handle it. If the infrastructure could handle the development, the APFO would not apply. Mitigation would be unnecessary. The mitigation process can only benefit developers. Every month, more developers benefit from mitigation.

Mitigation wasn't enough to accommodate all the needs of developers. The next revision of the APFO was to allow for a broader exemption. The "elderly housing" exemption was born with a "workforce housing" exemption on the way.

Developers are automatically exempted from most (approximately 70 percent) of the APFO fees (collected as the excise tax). The discount goes to the developer, not the purchaser. There is no provision that the developer pass the savings along to Grandma or Joe Workforce. The only provision is for the developer to avoid paying for roads or schools. This exemption will cost taxpayers more than $10 million in the Robinwood corridor alone. The funding shortfall in the Robinwood corridor is well known. It does not seem like a good place to be handing out exemptions.

It is only a small exaggeration to say that mitigation mania is sweeping the county. Recently, several large developments requested (and received) exemptions from the APFO. We have county staff spending hours and hours looking at mitigation proposals, county lawyers spending hours on mitigation proposals. All this wasted time and money happens before the project is voted on by commissioners. If the project is approved, the taxpayers really begin to pay with higher taxes and a degraded quality of life.

The APFO needs to have the mitigation clause removed. The excise tax needs to be raised to cover all the costs for schools, roads, etc. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize developers through higher taxes or reduced services.

Our children should not be forced to go to over crowded schools so developers can avoid the costs their development imposes on our community. Full Fare. No Exceptions. It's only fair.

Joe Lane is a Smithsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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