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School funding discussion illustrates why formula is being considered

Washington County Board of Commissioners is trying to figure out how much to charge developers for school mitigation

June 11, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Jason Divelbiss distributes handouts Tuesday to the Washington County Board of Commissioners for a discussion of the adequate public facilities ordinance. Divelbiss is part of a development team of a parcel in West Hagerstown between Salem Avenue and Maugansville Road.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

A discussion Tuesday about the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance served to illustrate why the Washington County Board of Commissioners is considering a new formula on how new residential developments should help pay for schools.

Attorney Jason Divelbiss presented a plan to the board for The Reserve at Collegiate Acres, a 272-unit apartment complex. The plan offered no money for school mitigation, instead proposing a phase-in development over a period of years that would roughly coincide with the construction and opening of a planned West Side Elementary School.

Phases 1 and 2, scheduled to begin in 2013 and 2015, respectively, would take 18 months each to build and three more years to reach full occupancy, Divelbiss said.

“Zero strikes me as not the right number,” Commissioner William McKinley said  during the discussion before the board.

“The end result has always been a cost per unit ... regardless of how you get there,” County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

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McKinley suggested Divelbiss and the developers come back next week with a proposal.

“We don’t know what to come back with,” said Trey Alter, managing member of The Reserve at Collegiate Acres LLC.

“And that’s the problem with APFO,” McKinley replied, referring to the ordinance.

Alter said his group wants to begin construction on Phase 1 this summer, and contractors are waiting for the adequate facilities issue to be resolved. The Reserve at Collegiate Acres is to be built in an area between Salem Avenue and Maugansville Road on the city’s west side.

Divelbiss attempted to amend the proposal with $112,000, a figure based on a proportion of what the school system would have realized from the excise tax prior to it being lowered recently from $3 to $1 per square foot.

At the end of the discussion, the five-member board took no vote, and Divelbiss said he and his clients will return with another proposal next week.

Formula sought

The board last month discussed changes in the APFO, which has been a process of negotiation with developers whose projects go above certain thresholds for the state-rated capacity of schools in the district where a project would be built.

Those thresholds are 90 percent of student capacity for elementary schools and 100 percent of capacity for middle and high schools, under the APFO. Murray said the average mitigation cost in previous negotiations was $6,680 per housing unit.

At that May 28 meeting, Planning and Zoning Director Stephen T. Goodrich suggested that the commissioners consider adopting a formula, one that would make the process more certain for developers, easier to administer for county officials and produce about $3,000 per unit in mitigation fees.

Goodrich said Tuesday that the formula for adjusting the ordinance could be ready for a public hearing and passage by mid-July.

McKinley and Commissioner Jeffrey Cline indicated that a month was a long time for the developers to wait to resolve the issue.

The process of finalizing a mitigation formula, approving and implementing it could stretch out even longer, Divelbiss told the board.

“It’s still up for debate what’s going to be in the formula,” Alter said.

Divelbiss said during the discussion that the development would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate taxes for Hagerstown and the county, along with $320,000 in excise taxes.

“All the schools are above state-rated capacity” in the area where the development is planned, Citizens for the Protection of Washington County President Joe Lane said during the citizens comment period. Allowing that many multifamily dwellings would exacerbate the overcrowding of schools serving that area, he said.

A report from Goodrich to the commissioners said the development would add 98 elementary school students, 41 middle school and 44 high school students, based on Washington County Public Schools figures.

That would put Maugansville Elementary 193 students over its local-rated capacity, Western Heights Middle School at 51 students over capacity and North High at 453 students over its local-rated capacity.

It was noted during the discussion that local-rated capacity is calculated differently and is lower than state-rated capacity for schools.

Lane said he figured the cost of building enough school space to accommodate that many students would be about $8.4 million.

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