Builders rush for home permits


The race is on again for homebuilding permits in Harford County.

Homebuilders are beating a path to the Department of Planning and Zoning to obtain permits before a newly approved impact fee kicks in, county officials say.

The rush started Wednesday morning, hours after the County Council approved a $6,000 fee on new single-family homes to help pay for school construction and renovation.

For a townhouse or duplex, the fee is $4,200. For all other residential units, including mobile homes, the cost is $1,200.

The fee is effective July 1.

"Since last night's vote there have been quite a few inquiries," Nancy Lipski, chief of the site plan and building permits review section of Planning and Zoning, said the day after the council action. "We're seeing a large increase in applications for new residential building permits."

She said the department usually has one or two appointments a week with builders of developments consisting of eight houses or more. The spurt of applications will bump that up to a half-dozen a week over the next few weeks, Lipski said.

An appointment with a zoning administrator is required for builders seeking permits for projects of eight houses or more. For projects with fewer houses, walk-in service is sufficient.

By 3 p.m. Wednesday, 31 names were listed on the department's sign-in sheet for building permits. Lipski said that number was higher than usual, although she couldn't tell whether the applicants were seeking permits for new homes or for some other construction, such as a pool, garage or barn.

Last week's increase in permit applications reminded planning and zoning officials of a similar run on permits in summer 2003, when media reports first hinted that the council would consider a moratorium on development in areas where schools were crowded. Eventually, the council passed adequate public facilities legislation that limited construction in areas where schools were over capacity.

Susan Stroud Parker, a spokeswoman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said at that time that the increased activity was caused by builders taking extra permits "to be on the safe side."

About three-fourths of the county is closed to new development by the adequate public facilities law. For that reason, Parker said, she was surprised by the recent spate of permit activity. She said much of the current residential building in the county is senior housing, which is exempt from the law.

The latest rush comes with the July 1 deadline looming. The fee will not be applied to applications filed by June 30, even if the permit is issued later.

And the fees will rise over the next two years. For a single-family home the cost goes to $7,442 on July 1 next year and to $8,269 on July 1, 2007. For a townhouse or duplex, the fee jumps to $5,148 next year and to $5,720 in 2007. For all other dwellings, including mobile homes, it rises to $1,473 and then to $1,637.

The fee represents the council's response to public complaints in recent years about the need for new schools and repairs to old school buildings.

Homebuilders pay the impact fee when obtaining a permit, but typically the costs are passed on to homebuyers in the form of higher prices.

Yet the new fees could be onerous to some builders, particularly smaller operations, Parker said. She said the fee could prove to be a burden to a small builder who would have to wait six to nine months until settlement to recoup his money.

"Six thousand dollars is a lot to accommodate if a builder has not planned for it," Parker said. "Despite the high demand for housing in the county, some areas are very price-sensitive, and a builder can only get so much for a house."

Lipski said residential building permit applications for the first five months of the year are running only slightly ahead of last year's pace.

March was the exception, she said. "We issued a tremendous amount of permits in March, almost double the previous year's run." There were 125 permits in March, up from 63 the previous March.

She said she suspects that the increase was related to the introduction of the impact-fee bill and a public hearing.

"When the bill was introduced, there was a blip on our radar screen, but it could also have been related to nice weather in March," she said.

Lipski said the building permit staff was going to be busier than usual over the next couple of weeks, and that she was prepared to stay late if necessary "to accommodate every citizen who comes in."

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