Developers that want to build in areas with overcrowded schools may soon have an option to pay a fee to help offset the cost of school construction.

The fee would be offered as an option to developers building a school addition or waiting until schools aren't overcrowded.

Frederick County Commissioners discussed the new school mitigation fee Thursday, and plan to continue the discussion next month. A public hearing is planned for July.

The proposal was brought forward by the Land Use Council of Frederick County, which is an organization of the Frederick County Builders Association, and the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.

Under current law, developers in the unincorporated parts of the county must show that building homes will not push local schools over 100 percent capacity.

The new fee would be paid when developers exceed 100 percent school capacity.

Combined with another school impact fee already in place, the fees would cover 115 percent of the net capital cost per student to the county and state.

The county is not allowed to require school impact fees above the actual cost for students, but developers said they'd be willing to pay more -- 115 percent -- if the fee was offered as an option.

Commissioners President Blaine Young said the proposed fee would be a new way for the county to raise funds for school construction and renovation projects. It would also help spur construction jobs.

"Where developers have always been called the problem, today they need to be viewed as part of the solution," Young said.

Several parents of students opposed the proposal at Thursday's meeting, and former Frederick County Commissioner Kai Hagen spoke up against it on the Facebook wall of his newly formed organization, Envision Frederick County.

Hagen said the ordinance was proposed by developers, written by them and would benefit them.

"It's NOT a 'mitigation fee,'" Hagen wrote. "It's a 'how-to-buy-your-way-out-of-miitigation-fee.' It's a modest fee, suggested by the developers themselves, that would allow a project to advance EVEN IF local schools are overcrowded, and would be made more so by the new development."

The details of the proposal are still being worked out. For example, the commissioners said Thursday they wanted to consider offering the fee as an option only if the development would cause schools to be up to 120 percent overcrowded.

If the development would cause overcrowding at a higher level, developers would either have to build an addition or wait until overcrowding conditions subsided.

The commissioners must also decide whether the fee should be applied to all new units, or just those that would force overcrowding at schools.

For instance, if a school could accommodate 100 new students but a housing development would bring 120 new students, developers might have to pay the fee on all units -- even though school overcrowding would be caused by only the last 20 students.

Some of those ideas don't sit well with developers. Mark Friis, who spoke on behalf of the Land Use Council at the meeting, said he thought fees should be offered on all developments that would cause schools to be overcrowded at levels up to 125 percent of capacity.

Commissioner David Gray said that was too much, and questioned how Friis could suggest that with a straight face.

In a middle school built for 800, developers could add enough students to bring total population to 1,000, Gray said.

Friis said overcrowded conditions would spur action, such as redistricting or a new capital project.

He said the mitigation fees could be used for that capital project.

Gray questioned whether projects would be completed quickly enough to address school overcrowding where there are new developments.

"You either believe that having a non-overcrowded experience is valuable or not," Gray said. "Every year where you have a bad learning environment impacts that kid, and that's how a parent thinks about it."

Friis urged the commissioners to support establishing a mitigation fee.

"We believe it's in the best interest of our industry. We also believe it's in the best interest of the county," Friis said.

Friis also said the fee should be applied only to units that would cause overcrowding.

Young challenged those who opposed the mitigation fee to come up with another way to raise money for renovating schools or building additions.

He said some students are eating in cafeterias with water dripping onto their heads from leaky roofs.

Most developers choose to wait, rather than be responsible for a new school or addition.

"Right now no one has put together any solution of how to generate any other money," Young said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the proposal on May 11.

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