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Council forges fee pact

The Baltimore Sun

Facing a Nov. 3 deadline, Anne Arundel County lawmakers have forged an apparent agreement with County Executive John R. Leopold to end a 10-month deadlock over whether to raise development impact fees.

After weeding out amendments Monday night, the County Council approved a proposal sponsored by the council's president, Cathleen M. Vitale, and backed by Leopold to temporarily reduce the fees paid by developers for schools, roads and other services. The fees, which would be phased in over three years, would be reduced in January and then raised in each of the next two years. The compromise plan will get a final vote in less than two weeks at the council's next meeting.

"This bill's journey has one more step," Leopold said. "The council's action reflects the recognition of the importance of raising impact fees and establishing a schedule now for securing the revenue for our infrastructure needs. I appreciate the council's support in a sound compromise. This has been an intractable issue, a solution that's been elusive for two decades."

Developers say phasing in the fees would do little for a market that appears unlikely to make a quick turnaround. The fee for a 3,000-square-foot home, for example, would be $2,146 in January, $4,294 on Jan. 1, 2010, and $10,735 on Jan. 1, 2011, under the amended bill.

Opponents, including county leaders in real estate, construction and development, have insisted that any significant increase in fees would further damage an industry that is reeling from chaotic national and world financial markets. Increased fees would do little to spark growth and instead will lead to a growing number of layoffs, said Eric DeVito, head of the county home builders association.

"I'm not sure how this benefits the industry," DeVito said. "Impact fees aren't likely to prompt anybody to start on a project now, with the economy like this. And if you want to build in 2011, you start now. These figures are still too high to encourage anybody in the long run."

Proponents, including Leopold, say Anne Arundel's fees have been among the lowest in the state - which could leave Anne Arundel taxpayers holding the bag for an estimated $1.5 billion to pay for schools, roads, police and fire protection, and other services.

The need is acute near Fort Meade and Odenton, where 22,000 new jobs are expected during the next five to seven years as part of BRAC, the national military base realignment program, Leopold said. "Obviously, we have to get ready for the BRAC explosion," Leopold said.

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, who has been a consistent critic, questioned whether the economy might turn around in two to three years.

"You are tying the hands of the next council," said Middlebrooks, addressing his five colleagues who voted to approve the compromise. What magically happens in 2010. This is the worst possible message to send at the worst possible time, he said.

Community and environmental activists have squared off in public hearings with builders and developers a half-dozen times in recent months. They say the process has dragged on for untold hours of public hearings, legislative and council work sessions, as county lawmakers attempted to cobble together a compromise that would provide cash to complete the backlog of projects.

"Ideally, it shouldn't take this long," said David Prostner, who heads the county's Sierra Club chapter. "Impact fees have been unnaturally low for years, and we need logical steps for increasing them. Everybody knows they ought to be increased. It's taken too long, but it's a political process. The process has been glacial, but it's the nature of the beast."

Since January, when Leopold proposed the first across-the-board boost in fees in eight years, the plan has been scrutinized by a nationally known consultant and a blue ribbon panel appointed by the County Council and headed by former County Executive Robert R. Neall.

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