School Construction

Blue Heron Elementary School is being built due to rapid development and increasing enrollment in its surrounding area.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Councilman Steve McKay was working on legislation involving a subject frequently debated in Frederick County: school construction and mitigation fees paid by developers.

What had been one of McKay’s highest priorities while in office has since taken a back seat.

However, McKay (R) hopes to re-introduce a bill early in the new year once the county presents a report next month with recent state and local information regarding school construction costs.

“When I look back at ... my first two years, one of my big regrets is I haven’t been able to get that done yet,” McKay said last week.

School construction fees are paid by developers who want to build in areas where public schools are crowded. That means the school is at over 100 percent of state-rated capacity, according to Frederick County law.

In September 2018, the County Council passed legislation introduced by then-council President Bud Otis. That bill adjusted the school construction fees based on data from the state’s School Construction Cost Index, which changes annually, and then adds two percent to the school construction fees, with the maximum annual increase being capped at six percent.

Councilman Jerry Donald (D) was one of two “no” votes in a 5-2 vote on that legislation, arguing the fees did not go far enough in reducing crowding in those schools.

Last week, Donald said he is still letting McKay take the lead on the school construction fees bill. He led the efforts on an impact fees bill with McKay, a co-sponsor, and the council passed the bill 6-0 in April 2019.

Developers pay impact fees to account for growing school and library systems, no matter the capacity situation.

Donald said the coronavirus has caused many council priorities to hit the back burner, due to responding to economic fallout caused by the pandemic and corresponding government restrictions.

It’s hard to predict where Frederick County will be in the coming months, he said. While some are financially hurting, home sales have seen a boom in 2020, Donald noted.

“We’re part-time people … he’s got a day job, I’ve got a day job,” Donald said about a version of the bill not reaching a vote yet. “We’ve got other responsibilities in life, so when a big crisis comes up, some things are harder to get to. We’re not like Montgomery County, where [they’re] full-time legislators.”

Discussion about the bill and topic in general has not occurred in several months, said Janice Spiegel, education liaison in County Executive Jan Gardner’s (D) office.

Spiegel said she is working with Kelly Weaver, the county’s budget director, to present a report to the County Council, with an update on school construction costs and where the school mitigation fees should be.

According to the county’s last report, published earlier this year, mitigation fees for a single detached family home were at $4,444 per unit, Spiegel said. But according to more recent calculations using the state’s School Construction Cost index, the fee would be $7,606, she added.

McKay and Donald wanted to bring the fees more in line with the latter figure, and proposed a bill aiming to do that last year. But at a workshop in March 2019, some council members expressed concern about such a sudden, large increase in fees.

Both McKay and Donald pulled the proposal, and agreed to try and phase in the increases over a longer period, like two or three years. But McKay said that since the housing market was booming in 2020 and the developers avoided the first year of any additional costs, he was “leaning” toward returning the increase in fees to a one-year period.

Opponents of the increase — including some in the local construction and building industry — have argued any additional fees are passed on to homebuyers. And that hurts the county’s goal of affordable housing, they claim.

But McKay feels new homes impacted by any potential increase in fees should never be considered affordable housing, given how they fare in the market.

“The homes that we’re talking about, [where] the developers owe this fee, are not affordable home products,” McKay said. “They’re new home products that are selling at the high end of the market ... We have an affordable housing problem. This doesn’t impact that in my view, because the homes that this fee applies to are not affordable home products.”

Tracie Clabaugh, outgoing president of the board of directors at the Frederick County Building Industry Association, said she and colleagues will wait for McKay’s proposal.

“We look forward to Frederick County having a comprehensive and thorough discussion on the increase of any development fee(s),” Clabaugh wrote in an email.

Spiegel said she understands the issue can be contentious, but she also wanted to see what McKay would propose in the coming months.

“There’s always a debate in Frederick County about school capacity, and how we get our school capacity,” Spiegel said. “If there’s anything that makes it contentious, that’s the debate.”

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

(8) comments

yogib

pretty good for a republican. let us see if this really happens.

MD1756

Time for the obvious comment again. Why not push the state legislators to eliminate the income tax deductions people get for having children, and at some level they should be taxed more because of the burdens they place on local governments and the environment (climate change). One time construction fees do not cover the costs of the burden on the schools system or other infrastructure needs (such as POTW maintenance, roads maintenance and upgrades for the increasing population). Maryland already does not fully cover their retirement fund obligations, with population growth and the Kirwan legislation it will only get worse. The fees are too little when it comes to the long term costs of population growth and its adverse impacts (including the adverse impact on the quality of life).

gabrielshorn2013

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

mrnatural1

Absolutely correct MD.

School construction is only a small fraction of the costs related to residential sprawl.

In fact, while it may be unintentional, it comes across as a red herring. "Hey kids! Look over here at school buildings. It's the only thing you need to concern yourselves with!" Of course there are many expenses attributable to development, very few of which are paid by developers and/or buyers of their ugly boxes.

We existing residents get stuck paying for the majority of highway and bridge maintenance and construction, police and fire protection; animal control; parks & rec; health services; FCC; all the independent agencies; emergency management; planning and permitting; IT; county admin; ag preservation; parks acquisition -- all of those expenses, and more, increase with increased population. Sure there is some increase in tax revenue, but it's never enough.

Developers like to claim that property taxes will actually decrease when they are allowed to build more houses. I've been here for almost 36 years. The population of FredCo has more than DOUBLED in that time period, and our taxes have only increased.

All of that pales in comparison to the continuing decline in our quality of life.

gabrielshorn2013

Good points mrnatural 👍👍👍

DickD

While this is well intended it hardly addresses the problem. For instance, what do you do when a one family home is bought and numerous people live there? And they may be related or not. It's happening right now in Middletown, which is probably not the worst location of this happening in Frederick County.

stevemckay

Dick - when these fees are calculated, part of the calculation is the pupil generation rate for each home type in different areas of the county. FCPS tracks the number of students per address and can determine the type of home at each address. Those then get averaged by home type and school level. One single family home may have zero kids in school, another may have a bunch. It all gets factored into setting the rates for new homes obligated to pay the school construction mitigation fee.

TomWheatley

I was Cubmaster over at Valley Elementary when the Cambridge Farms development went in. Everyone seemed to have 2.3 kids of the same age and a dog. The Pack added 15-20 boys each year for the next 4 years. Then the student bubble rolled thru to the Middle and High Schools and Valley was back to its normal size. No new school nor additions were built.

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