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.”