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Commissioners deny impact fee waiver for proposed Westminster apartment building offering ‘affordable housing’

Andrew Hanson, vice president of development for Conifer, came to the commissioners Oct. 3 to request impact fee waivers for a future 35-unit apartment building in Westminster.
Andrew Hanson, vice president of development for Conifer, came to the commissioners Oct. 3 to request impact fee waivers for a future 35-unit apartment building in Westminster. (Mary Grace Keller)

The developer of a proposed 35-unit apartment building in Westminster, which would include what was termed “affordable housing,” asked the Board of Commissioners to waive impact fees for the property, but was shot down by a 4-1 vote.

Conifer Real Estate Development plans to construct the apartment building beside Safeway, bordered by West Main Street and Taneytown Pike. Conifer sought a waiver to not pay recreation and school impact fees. According to the Carroll County Code of Ordinances, projects creating workforce or affordable housing may be eligible for such a waiver. The apartments would be for people of mixed incomes, according to Andrew Hanson, vice president of development for Conifer.

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Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget, told the commissioners the project meets the criteria to be eligible for a waiver, but said the board may choose to grant, deny, or partially grant the waiver.

Conifer would manage the property once it is built, according to Hanson. The project has yet to be approved by Westminster City, according to city planning staff. The only action to date on the proposed apartment building was Westminster Common Council’s vote to essentially rezone the area where the apartments may be erected, according to City Administrator Barbara Matthews. On May 13, the council approved the application for the establishment of a Compatible Neighborhood Overlay District to allow for greater design flexibility.

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“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about affordable housing, workforce housing,” Hanson said. “This is not subsidized, this is not HUD [Housing and Urban Development], this is not Section 8. These folks will have to pass a criminal credit check, they’ll have to have a minimum income to be able to afford the rent, and they will have to pay their rent.”

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, pushed back on Hanson’s statements.

He asked if the apartments could turn into subsidized or Section 8 housing.

Hanson said a tenant could use a housing voucher, but the apartments would “never be project-based HUD housing.”

“But that voucher then allows for subsidized housing so it is then subsidized housing,” Rothstein said.

Hanson said he couldn’t imagine all the apartments being subsidized housing. He noted the tenants are expected to be of mixed incomes, with some making $60,000 or more.

Rothstein expressed concern over setting a precedent if the board would vote to grant impact fee waivers for these apartments. He suggested Conifer pursue state incentives instead. Rothstein said he supports the construction of affordable housing, but took issue with waiving the impact fees. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, also voiced concern over setting a precedent.

Zaleski noted the county’s school impact fee is currently zero, while the recreation impact fee would be approximately $500 per unit or $18,000 total. The impact fees are designed to cover the costs of new development, and the commissioners set the school impact fee to $0 in 2012 when the student population started declining, Zaleski wrote in an email.

Although there is currently no school impact fee, the commissioners could always reinstate it, Zaleski noted. Before the previous commissioners changed the fee, single-family homes cost developers about $6,300 per unit, according to Zaleski. If that fee was reinstated, Conifer would be looking at $220,500 in school impact fees.

Considering this, Hanson pressed for the commissioners to waive the school impact fee in addition to the recreation fee. Hanson said the recreation fee would not be “detrimental” to the company deciding to build, but if the school impact fee was raised, it could have an impact.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, made the argument that the fees should be waived.

Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, speaks at a commissioners meeting July 11, 2019.
Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, speaks at a commissioners meeting July 11, 2019. (Carroll County Times)

“... Always hear, yeah we want affordable housing, we want this, but we don’t want it in my backyard. This is in my backyard and I’m for it. This is my district,” Frazier said.

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Although waiving the $18,000 may be a small gesture, Frazier said it should be a step the board takes to encourage the building of affordable housing. After the meeting, Frazier said the only “affordable housing” he could think of in Carroll County were homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

Zaleski noted the ordinance allows for the commissioners to decide when to waive fees on a case-by-case basis.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, voiced support for the project in general, saying affordable housing is good for police officers, firefighters, teachers, and people starting out in their careers.

Seeking a compromise, Frazier suggested the board waive the school impact fee and keep the recreation fee, but he stood alone.

Rothstein made the motion not to waive either fee, which was approved 4-1, with Frazier opposed.

The commissioners not waiving the fees does not prevent Conifer from continuing forward in seeking approval from Westminster to build the apartments. Conifer plans to come before the Westminster planning and zoning commission at its Oct. 10 meeting for an “informal” review of the project, which will allow the developer to gain feedback before formally submitting the site plan, according to city planner Andrew Gray.

If the school impact fees are reinstituted, Hanson said he will personally be knocking on Rothstein’s door.

“We want you to be extremely successful in this investment in our county and hope that you look at other sites within the county to prosper as well because this is something that we really need,” Bouchat said.

Frazier countered.

“We want you to be successful," he said, "but we’re not going to help you. I mean, come on.”

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