Our Say:
Leopold is right: Much higher impact fees are needed

The Capital, January 08, 2008

Those bitterly critical of the way Anne Arundel County undercharges developers on impact fees should be happy - indeed, delighted - with the new fees County Executive John Leopold proposed last week. His plan is based on the latest report by James D. Nicholas, the consultant who also drew up the recommendations that the County Council watered down in 2001. Under the plan, the county would go from having some of the lowest impact fees in the state to fees comparable to the highest - namely, those in Montgomery County.

The current blanket charge of $4,069 for a single-family home would be replaced by charges pegged to the number of bedrooms. The fee for a one-bedroom house - how many of those are built? - would go down to $3,571. But the fees for two-bedroom to five-bedroom houses would range from $12,683 all the way up to $39,942 - the latter nearly a tenfold increase. The increases would be nearly as dramatic for nonresidential buildings.

No wonder Council Chairman Cathy Vitale says her first glance at the numbers gave her "sticker shock."

But Mr. Leopold, in his guest column on Sunday, pointed out the connection between the county's low impact fees and its backlogs in roads, school facilities and other infrastructure. With the expansion at Fort Meade due to give the county another jolt of new jobs and residents, the impact fees have to be adjusted to meet the real costs of development, not just a small percentage of it.

That doesn't mean that Mr. Leopold's proposals couldn't be improved. While he's right to think that charging the same fee for every house is unfair, we don't see why he decided to base his graduated scale on the number of bedrooms - often not a good indicator of a house's size. There are McMansions with three bedrooms and modest homes with four.

Mr. Leopold wrote on Sunday that his "graduated structure will also encourage construction of smaller homes that are within the price range of work force housing." But those who need work force housing tend to be young families with children - families that may not be able to afford a big house, but need multiple bedrooms.

Is there some reason the county couldn't set up this residential scale by square footage, as Mr. Leopold proposes for office buildings? That would be likelier to encourage construction of smaller homes.

Naturally, developers don't like Mr. Leopold's proposals and will try to get them diluted, as the last proposals were in 2001. And it's true that the new fees won't help the housing sector get out of its current slump.

But the county, in fairness to its existing residents and taxpayers, needs realistic impact fees in place before the next wave of construction starts. Mr. Leopold's proposals are a major step toward this goal.

(Revised Dec 2007)