Panel leader says effort to reach consensus on raising impact fees on new homes may run out of time

The Baltimore Sun

The head of a panel advising the Anne Arundel County Council on impact fees put the odds at "less than even" that its work will be done by early April, raising the likelihood that the county administration's bill calling for sweeping fee increases will expire later that month.

Robert R. Neall, a former county executive and the chairman of the advisory group of business and community representatives, said Monday that the committee will hear from two impact-fee experts on March 31: James C. Nicholas, the county consultant who wrote the report that served as the basis for the proposed fees, and an expert hired by the home-building industry.

The nine-member committee, formed on March 3, is under pressure to propose findings by the April 7 council meeting. Conceivably, the council could propose amendments that night and the final bill could be voted on April 21 -- just a few days before it expires.

"Every day this doesn't get done, we're losing money," Alan R. Friedman, the county's governmental relations director, said yesterday. "We're hopeful of reaching a consensus within the time allotted."

But that would occur only if the council and County Executive John R. Leopold's administration were in agreement. The two sides have been deadlocked on a structure for raising the fees on new homes -- fees that are usually passed on from the developer to the buyers -- as well as on commercial and industrial projects.

It appears, however, there is consensus on dropping a progressive fee for homes based on bedrooms, and instead using square footage to determine charges. Also, county officials have largely reached agreement on the underlying data to devise an appropriate fee.

Council members have said they would grant the committee more time to complete its work if needed.

Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, raised the idea of including a storm-water restoration fee as part of an impact-fee bill. Last year, the council scuttled Leopold's bill to create a storm-water restoration fund by charging fees on most new development, and the county executive's efforts to resurrect it have so far proved ineffective.

"If we were to revisit storm water, the appropriate place is in the impact-fee bill," Vitale said.

Neall, however, said his committee does not have the data to weigh marrying the two sets of fees.

The county's impact fees, currently $4,904 for a single-family home, are among the lowest in the state. Leopold has proposed new fees that would make Arundel's perhaps the highest in Maryland. The fees would rise as much as 14 times the current rate for some properties. As drafted last month, the impact fee on a new four-bedroom, single-family home would rise by more than $21,000.

Leopold has said the bill compensates for the "artificially low fees" that have been in place for the past two decades.

The council, which opposed the bill, responded by forming the committee. Homebuilders and developers have balked at the high fees, saying they could exacerbate an industry downturn. No homebuilders are represented on the panel -- reflecting the politics surrounding the controversial topic.

Neall said the committee would take into consideration the county's existing development fees in figuring how much to increase impact fees. Anne Arundel's development fees -- for planning reviews, permits, and water and sewer hookups -- are among the highest in the Baltimore region, according to an analysis compiled by homebuilders of 50-lot, single-family-home subdivisions.

For example, current county development fees can exceed $20,000 per single-family home. Factoring in Leopold's proposed impact fees, homebuilders would pay up to $57,000 in county charges per home site, according to the homebuilders. That's more than triple the fees in Harford County and quadruple those in Howard County.

Leopold has argued that his proposed impact fees, along with the current development fees, would "reflect the actual cost of development."

Eric DeVito, president of the county chapter of the Home Builders Association, said that amending the current bill may prove to be too complicated. "Killing it and bringing it back, whenever you bring it back, is the right way to do it," he said.

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