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Changes pitched for impact fees

The county attorney has proposed closing a loophole in the school impact fee ordinance. Reactions are mixed.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

Pasco County's school impact fee ordinance, approved just a year ago, might need a rewrite to stop developers from exploiting a loophole in the law, county attorney Robert Sumner said.

The impact fee ordinance charges builders $1,694 on each new home, money designed to make new development pay for schools. Builders typically include the fee in the price of a new home.

A loophole in the ordinance lets developers pay less in impact fees when they donate land for schools. The exemption was intentionally inserted in the ordinance to help the school district acquire land, but it recently has caused problems for the county:

Developers who promised school sites as long ago as the 1980s are trying to renege on their land donations or are demanding big discounts in impact fees.

The most recent case concerns Northwood, the 1,000-acre development in Wesley Chapel. Brant Byrd, who proposes developing the last section of Northwood, wants to change his plans to exclude a previously-agreed-to school site.

The county's initial position in the dispute is that, because the land was promised in 1985, before the ordinance was passed, the development must provide both the land and pay full impact fees.

Byrd's attorney insists the county can't legally demand both land and full impact fees, citing state rules that require impact fees to bear a "reasonable relationship" to the cost of providing schools.

"It's a damned problem," Sumner said last week in response to the Northwood case, expected to be replicated in other developments across Pasco, including Trinity in southwest Pasco.

Fearful of greater school crowding if the county doesn't build schools fast enough, Sumner proposed closing the loophole in the school impact fee rules.

His plan is to use the recently enacted park impact fee as a model. That ordinance specifies where the county will spend the $892 collected from each new home: $174 for land purchases and $717 for park buildings and equipment.

Developers who donate park land can request reductions only on that part of the fee dedicated to land. They still owe $717 for buildings and equipment.

Sumner suggests treating land and buildings separately on the school impact fee, too. Developers who make land grants deserve a break only on that fraction of the $1,694 that covers land, he said.

For an elementary school, land generally represents only a few hundred thousand dollars of the $8-million cost.

Sumner promised to introduce the proposed changes at a meeting of the Pasco Planning Commission scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in New Port Richey.

But the school district's planning director, Mike Rapp, said developers might have little incentive to donate land if they can't get enough of a break on impact fees. And the district can't always come up with the cash to buy land outright, he said.

One of the county's leading development attorneys, Ben Harrill, doesn't like the idea either. Harrill's client, the Trinity development, is battling the county over the issue.

In its contract with the school district, Trinity agreed to donate two school sites, one of which became Trinity Elementary. One condition was that the school district never force Trinity to pay impact fees.

Because Pasco County, and not the School Board, administers the impact fees, the county argues that the contract isn't binding, Harrill said. Barring a resolution of the standoff, Harrill recommends Trinity sue.

"The law requires that developers get full credit for whatever land was previously dedicated to the county," he said.

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