County winding down fee-waiver program

Staff working to address what to do with projects that were approved before council voted to formally repeal program

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Some Clark County developers may have to speed up progress on their projects if they want to remain eligible for fee waivers worth tens of millions of dollars.

About a year after the Clark County council signaled its intention to end a controversial fee-waiver program, county staff have drafted a resolution setting deadlines for how much progress developers need to make on their projects to stay eligible for it.

The program was created in 2013, championed by then-county Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke. It waived traffic impact and application fees for nonresidential development in unincorporated areas of Clark County.

The program was created with the intention of boosting jobs in the county, which was still recovering from the Great Recession. But since its implementation, it’s attracted criticism that it has done little to create jobs and deprived the county of revenue. A 2014 audit report from the Clark County Auditor’s Office described the program as unsustainable and suggested that it boosted construction projects in low-wage industries that would have happened regardless.

In December, the county council voted to repeal the program, imposing the fees on all new projects. But as the county prepares to wind down the program, it’s had to consider what to do with pipeline projects, those that came in before the county voted to formally repeal the program.

“We want to have a plan forward allowing county customers predictability and certainty,” Community Development Director Marty Snell said at a recent county work session on the topic.

According to county figures, there are 105 so-called pipeline projects, about half of which, according to Snell, came in last year during pre-application conferences, meetings where developers can present their proposal and county staff review can review standards while identifying any potential issues. Another 30 are under preliminary review and 23 have been issued a final building permit.

These projects would amount to $6.71 million in waived application fees and an estimated $16 million in waived traffic impact fees.

New deadlines

The draft resolution, if passed, will require developers to meet deadlines if they want to stay eligible. The draft resolution states that developers who are contingently vested (meaning they’ve successfully turned in a complete application for a staff conference) must file a full complete application for either a preliminary subdivision or site plan approval within a year to stay eligible.

After filing fully complete applications for preliminary subdivision or site plan approval, the resolution would require developers to obtain preliminary approval within eighteen months. After that, they must obtain final engineering approval within 180 days to stay eligible. In the project’s final stage, the developer must obtain building permits within six months of obtaining final engineering.

The resolution also allows the county’s director of Community Planning to waive a deadline if they determine that a developer is diligently working toward the project’s completion but was delayed due to a circumstance beyond their control, such as a federal or state agency delaying an additionally needed permit.

Residential impact

Before he was elected to Clark County council last year, John Blom actively opposed the program in 2013 on behalf of the Clark County Association of Realtors out of concerns that it would effectively result in fees from residential construction subsidizing commercial construction.

“Basically, the residential side was bearing the full cost (of fees) at a time when we’re going through a housing crisis,” said Blom. He said the resolution will help restore balance between residential and commercial development while allowing developers to wrap up their projects.

In a statement, Andrea Smith, marketing and communications manager for the Southwest Washington Contractors Association, wrote that the association commended the county’s efforts to bring greater clarity to which projects remain eligible under the fee-waiver program. However, she wrote that contractors already face a lengthy permitting process, which she described as the biggest deterrent in the development process.

“Placing deadlines on contractors while the industry is booming might cause unintended consequences that neither SWCA nor the council can determine,” she wrote. “We would like the council to elaborate on what constitutes an extraordinary circumstance, besides fault of a permitting agency.”

Jamie Howsley, a local land-use attorney and government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Clark County (which he said primarily represents residential builders), said that the resolution, as written, has fair benchmarks that will move projects along rather than letting developers sit on their fee waivers.

He also echoed the SWCA concerns about the time it takes to get a permit.

“It’s not the fees that hurt professional developers and builders,” he said, “but the time. Anything that we can do to speed up the process with time will far outweigh the fees.”