Frederick County is moving toward increasing fees for those who build houses in neighborhoods where schools are crowded, and the typical objections are being raised by the development community.

The County Council should go ahead with its plans because the objections are not valid.

For many years, the county has collected what it calls mitigation fees to help pay for school construction in those communities. If schools are already over-capacity, and developers want to build new homes that will attract new families with more children, the county must expand existing buildings or add new ones.

Well, there is another option, but developers like it even less. The county could place a moratorium on new construction in those communities until new classrooms can be added. But if developers cannot develop, their businesses are hurt.

Perhaps, in a world unlike our own, the county could just raise everyone’s taxes to pay for new school buildings. But in this world, that is just politically infeasible. The principle that new development must pay for its impact is deeply ingrained. Raising taxes on people already living here to pay for the schools (and also for roads, parks and libraries) to accommodate new residents just won’t fly.

The development industry knows the truth of both statements, but to hold down its costs and preserve its profit, it usually resorts to another argument. It says higher mitigation fees will harm efforts to keep housing affordable in the county. It is a diversionary tactic.

Councilman Steve McKay (R) is the prime backer of the legislation adjusting the mitigation fees. His proposal adopts fee increases originally recommended by County Executive Jan Gardner (D), which are in the thousands of dollars but vary based on housing and school type. He said Tuesday the new fees would apply to about 11 developments countywide.

Eric Soter, a land use and planning consultant who used to work for the county, complained that the increases proposed by McKay were much larger than the increase in impact fees, another kind of development fee assessed to pay for schools and libraries countywide.

Chris Smariga, president of the Land Use Council of the Frederick County Building Industry Association, raised the affordable housing argument.

“Do increasing these fees by as much as 260 percent actually support Frederick County’s affordable housing goals?” Smariga asked, according to News-Post reporter Steve Bohnel.

Ever since the new charter form of government created the County Council in 2014, the members have been debating how much to charge for school construction fees.

The original council passed a limited increase sponsored by then-Council President Bud Otis that adjusted the school construction fees based on the state’s School Construction Cost Index, added an annual increase of 2 percent to the then-current school construction fees and capped the maximum annual increase at 6 percent.

In March 2019, McKay and Councilman Jerry Donald (D) set about to write a bill to raise the fees to levels more in line with those proposed by Gardner. Otis’ bill replaced Gardner’s proposal.

The county needs this money so kids are not crammed into crowded schools. That is a prescription for a poor education, putting some children forever at a disadvantage. No one wants that.

And the fees need a significant increase because of the cost of school construction.

When the mitigation fee bill was first created and adopted in 2014, elementary schools cost around $30 million to build, according to Janice Spiegel, education and special initiatives director with the county executive’s office.

Now, it is roughly $50 million.

The bill is heading to a final vote unless major amendments are proposed, which would trigger another public hearing, according to our reporter.

Yes, affordability is important, but quality education is more important. The council should approve the new mitigation fees proposed by McKay as quickly as possible.

(9) comments

ridgelea

If, as a community, children, democracy, and a stabile society are priorities then supporting schools should be a shared investment and responsibility, just as roads, city/county services etc are. Ultimately it affects all of us, no matter where we live.

mrnatural1

Quote:

"The development industry knows the truth of both statements, but to hold down its costs and preserve its profit, it usually resorts to another argument. It says higher mitigation fees will harm efforts to keep housing affordable in the county. It is a diversionary tactic."

Absolutely true.

The bottom line is: additional housing = more children = more schools required.

If we accept that residential sprawl will continue -- that we are helpless to stop the march toward the total destruction of Frederick County (the path we are currently on) then we will need money for schools (and parks, roads, libraries, etc.). It must come from somewhere. It is clearly unfair and unethical to expect existing residents to pay even more than they already do to cover the cost of new development that further degrades their quality of life!

The only rational answer is for new construction to pay for itself. Period.

As for "affordable housing", that's a separate issue. If the county decides it wants to mitigate the cost of housing for some low income families, we can have that discussion, but any new schools; roads; bridges; sidewalks; parks; bike paths; libraries, police/fire protection, etc., etc., that are needed due to new development should be paid for by developers. If that raises the price of their boxes, so be it. Maybe prospective home buyers will look elsewhere and we'd all get a break.

FrederickFan

I totally agree with the FNP on this one. The fee should be raised, and should have been raised years ago before Otis stopped it.

I will be watching the Council vote closely to see if any of the Council members, particularly those running for office, decide to oppose this very reasonable increase in order to generate campaign funds in exchange for selling out the taxpayers and our school children.

eak1969123

This presumes all new construction is purchased by families with children moving into the county from elsewhere. If a current downsizing resident, who has been paying for the school system for many years after their children graduated, moves to a new 55+ community, they will pay the increased fees in addition to continuing to pay for the school system. If they sell their current house to someone moving to the county with three children, then they would not pay the increased fees even tough they added to overcrowding. If a family currently living in the county with three children in the school system decides to sell their existing home and buy a new one, they will pay the fees, even though they did not add to overcrowding. A single person with no children buying their fist condo or town house would also pay the fees. Just because a property is new, it does not mean it occupants created additional school demand. Perhaps a more fair solution is to charge fees to relocate to the county. But of course that could not be masked in the house price and paid for as part of the mortgage.

stjohn42

It is unclear how the system of "billing people who relocate here" would even work, but more to the point, that just gives the developer a free ride while not changing the source of the money at all.

mrnatural1

Good points eak.

Is there no exception for '55+ communities? I don't know.

You wrote: "Perhaps a more fair solution is to charge fees to relocate to the county. But of course that could not be masked in the house price and paid for as part of the mortgage."

Your proposal is not unheard of, at least in other contexts. There are country clubs and dinner clubs that charge an up-front 'membership fee' (as well as ongoing annual dues). It's likely not practical with a city/county/state, but it's an interesting idea. When a person or family moves to another area (particularly another country) they get the benefit of everything that has been built by all of the exiting residents, and those before them. An argument could be made that if a person/family moves to a new county or state (not to mention an entirely different country) that they could be expected to pay an up-front fee to mitigate the cost of pre-existing infrastructure.

As a practical matter though, it isn't done -- not in that manner -- likely due in part to what you pointed out, that it could not be paid for as part of the mortgage. Most people would not have the required amount of money.

Bottom line, the current system is not entirely fair, as your examples show. How do you think that should be remedied? I'm sure that from the county officials' point of view, it would be an administrative nightmare to try to make it 100% equitable. Offhand, I'm afraid it cannot be done. For example, let's say a young couple moves to FredCo from somewhere else. They purchase a new home that includes all of the county fees in the price. They have no children so they file an appeal to be reimbursed for the school portion of the fees. The county cuts them a check. Then they proceed to have 4 kids who all attend FCPS, K > 12th grade. The county would, a) have to keep track of how many kids they have in the school system, and b) demand the return of the school fee reimbursement. Then there would be the possibility of legal action being required, maybe a lien on their home, if they refused to pay the county back.

I wish there as a ay to make the impact fees entirely fair, but it seems to be a practical impossibility.

Dwasserba

“The County Council should go ahead with its plans because the objections are not valid.” Whoa. No room there for “but what do you *really* think?” 👀 I’m a fan of whomever wrote this

stevemckay

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

gary4books

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