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.