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Leopold to propose big impact fee boost

The Baltimore Sun

A sweeping proposal to raise impact fees on new construction in Anne Arundel County by as much as twelvefold is scheduled to be introduced this week, but lawmakers are suggesting it is dead on arrival.

Relying on a study by a nationally known consultant, County Executive John R. Leopold is calling for substantial increases in the fees levied on developers -- and, in the cases of homes, typically passed onto the buyers. The current flat rate of $4,904 for a single-family home would increase to $28,315 for a four-bedroom house and $39,257 for a home of five bedrooms or more, according to the study. The highest proposed residential fee would be for a condominium or apartment of four or more bedrooms: $53,322, or more than 12 times the current top rate of $4,274.

Leopold said his bill, which the council will introduce Tuesday, seeks to offset the full burden that new building -- homes, hotels, hospitals, warehouses, nursing homes, offices, marinas and retail -- places on roads, schools and public safety. The figures in the bill have not been finalized.

"The essential purpose is to generate the money that should have been generated" since impact fees were created in 1987, Leopold said. The bill compensates for the "artificially low fees" that have been in place for the past two decades, he said.

Some lawmakers questioned the methods used to calculate the proposed fees -- which in some cases are more than $30,000 above the highest levies for residential property in Montgomery County -- because formulas and the underlying figures have changed several times. The consultant hired by the county, James C. Nicholas, staggered impact fees for homes based on the number of bedrooms in the later drafts of his study.

Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale raised the possibility that the council would hire its own consultant to perform an independent review, after the council heard Nicholas' testimony at a work session Tuesday. The seven lawmakers previously agreed not to introduce the bill Jan. 7 as they sought more feedback from county officials on the framework of the legislation.

Other council members said Leopold sent down a bill knowing that it stands no chance of passage. They accused the county executive of using the bill as a political ploy in hopes of currying favor with anti-growth interests.

"I don't think [Leopold] is being honest with the citizens. ... It's just politics," said Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican.

The discussion of impact fees comes at a time when Leopold is facing criticism over recent high-profile fundraisers with developers. State campaign finance reports released Thursday indicated Leopold raised $504,000 between January 2007 and this month, with more than half coming from developers or those with close ties to the building community, including attorneys and suppliers.

Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. and Vitale said that the Leopold administration late last year had offered to work with the council to settle on fee amounts. But when council members asked for more information, Leopold pushed ahead with his legislation alone, they said.

"I was taken off-guard when the administration introduced the bill," Dillon said. "Until then, I thought there was a desire to share information. Then things went awry."

County officials counter that they have provided draft studies of the Nicholas report to the council, and had inquired about the scope and direction to take on impact fees.

In 2000, the county administration under Democrat Janet S. Owens formed an independent committee of environmental and business interests to analyze the basis for increasing impact fees. They rebuffed several recommendations made by Nicholas, who was hired at the beginning of the decade to review impact fees.

Leopold decided against forming such a committee. The Nicholas study has been reviewed by the Planning Advisory Board, which is appointed by his administration.

The first public hearing for the bill is scheduled for mid-February. Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, said he would prefer killing Leopold's bill that night and "produce our own."

Middlebrooks has floated the idea of raising the transfer tax to generate funds from the sale of new and existing property. Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat, said that phasing in increases over two to three years would place less of a burden on developers, who are facing a downturn in the economy.

Lawmakers are also considering whether to incorporate this bill into legislation to overhaul the way classrooms are counted and charge a fee to combat stormwater runoff.

Cohen called Leopold's bill "a good-faith attempt" to capture the true cost of development on roads, schools and public safety. Yet while Cohen lauded the administration "for framing the discussion in the right way," he said the numbers are likely to go down.


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