Hike in park impact fees raises concerns

Developers, county officials fear homebuilding industry will be hurt at time when demand is high

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Clark County is poised to increase developer impact fees to generate more money to purchase new land for parks and maintain existing ones.

However, after the fee rate has remained flat for 13 years, developers and county officials say they worry the increase will hurt the homebuilding industry at a time when the demand for new housing Clark County is high and are calling for a more gradual hike. Park advocates, on the other hand, say they worry that a more gradual increase will mean less publicly available open spaces in the future.

Earlier this year, the county council voted to incorporate increased park impact fees into its Comprehensive Plan, a document that guides growth. The fees are a mechanism meant to pay for increased demand for parks that accompanies population growth and new housing. Currently, the fees range from $1,120 to $2,016 per lot or unit depending on which of the 10 districts the housing will be built in and if it’s multi-family or single-family.

The currently adopted fee increase structure calls for an 80-percent raise beginning next year, followed by a 90 percent increase the following year and a 100-percent increase the year after.

“We were caught off guard by it a little bit when the rate hike got passed in the (Comprehensive Plan),” said Jamie Howsley, government affairs director for both the Building Industry Association of Clark County and the Clark County Association of Realtors. “We want to provide parks, but we don’t want to drive up the cost of housing so much that people can’t afford it.”

At a Clark County Planning Commission meeting on the fees hikes held Thursday, Steve Madsen, general counsel for Aho Construction, asked the panel to support a more gradual increase in fees. He said that new fees would add significantly to the cost of construction. He mentioned a 265-lot development his company is working on that would cost $1.5 million more after the new fees were fully adopted.

“That’s over $2,000 per man, woman and child,” he said. “That’s an incredible move-in fee.”

Temple Lentz, the executive director of the Parks Foundation of Clark County, told The Columbian that while she understood the desire to minimize adverse effects for developers, the fee increase is overdue.

“The potential negative impact of raising the fees slowly is that our already low service standards will suffer even more,” she said. “So that’s something I hope the Board of County Councilors will take into consideration. … As our population grows, our parks aren’t going to meet our needs.”

The council, concerned about the steep increase in fees, is pondering a more gradual phase-in of the fees hikes.

County staff has proposed four additional options for phasing in the fee increases. The most gradual option (that’s favored by building industry, according to Howsley) is a five-step increase of 20 percent per year. The council could also adopt an initial 60 percent increase and 10 percent increase for the following four years. Another option includes an initial 50 percent increase plus 25 percent for the next two years.

Barbara Anderson, a member of the Parks Advisory Board, told the planning commission last week that the increase approved by the council only looked steep because it hadn’t been raised in 13 years and the county was at a “critical juncture” to secure more land for parks when it still could.

According to county numbers, there are $3.3 million in cash balances generated from the fees. Recently, the fees were used to develop Dogwood and Chinook parks in 2014. The county is wrapping up construction on Tower Crest and Sorenson parks this year with help of money from the fees.

In 2015, the county adopted a standard that there be 6 acres of urban parks and natural areas per thousand people. That’s only 60 percent of the recommended level-of-service guideline from the National Recreation and Parks Association, which Lentz said makes it more important for the county to purchase and maintain parks.

But Howsley said that builders are skeptical of some of the assumptions used by county staff in formulating the rate increases. Specifically, he pointed out that members of the county’s Development and Engineering Advisory Board (which voted to support 20 percent increases over five years) questioned why school parks and private parks don’t count toward the county’s standard. Howsley also said that some neighborhoods are served adequately by smaller parks, such as Carter Park

“(It’s) a big lift,” said Howsley referring to the standard.

On Thursday, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend that the council adopt a five-step increase of 20 percent per year for the fee.

“It still troubles me that we are in this deep of hole and we’re going to take this long to dig out,” said Bill Wright, a member of the commission at the meeting.

Now, it’s up the county council to adopt the final version of the fee increase, which it will do on Dec. 6 and could ignore the planning commission’s recommendation. But it looks like the council will likely support a gradual increase. At a council work session held earlier this month, Councilors David Madore, Jeanne Stewart and Julie Olson all expressed concerns about steeply increasing the fees.

This story has been updated to correctly reflect the planning commission’s recommendation.