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Building permits down in Berkeley Co.

January 23, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Berkeley County Planning Commission gave preliminary plat approval to more than 5,800 new residential lots proposed by developers in 2006, but only 99 building permits were issued by planning department staff last year, according to Director Stefanie Allemong.

"The housing market is dead," Planning Commissioner Gary Poling said after the panel's regular meeting Thursday. In the period, the City of Martinsburg issued 168 building permits, according to preliminary data provided by City Engineer/Planner Michael Covell.

Poling, himself a builder, said houses priced at about $150,000 were still "moving" in a market featuring more houses than buyers.

And even with the thousands of new lots created last year, Poling suspects that many of them are going to "go away" if the market continues to decline.

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Planning Commission approvals last year are valid for five years, but developers still are required to maintain financing bonds for each project or lose the approval, Poling confirmed.

Based on current projections, County Commissioner Ronald K. Collins said after the meeting that the Planning Department, a self-supporting entity through fees collected, still is expected finish "in the black" (by about $40,000) by the end of the next fiscal year - June 30, 2008.

"It will directly affect the county if it drops off to the point where they can't meet their budget," Collins said of the market decline.

As part of some fiscal belt-tightening measures, Allemong asked the Planning Commission to adopt a refund policy to basically "eliminate staff reviewing things for free."

After the meeting, Allemong could not immediately provide the value of services already provided at no cost to developers who were able to obtain a full refund in the early stages of the county's review process.

Allemong is expected to ask County Commissioners to approve a $1 million budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year. Though not proposed, Allemong also noted a fee increase had not been implemented since 2003, something she said should be considered annually in coordination with cost of living adjustments.

No staff reductions are being proposed, but Allemong said the market's decline has eliminated the need for weekly, Staff Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) meetings with developers about their projects. And the now, twice-monthly STAC meetings take even less than a full business day, something Allemong said has not happened since she was hired in May 2005.

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