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CHARLES TOWN – Soon, contractors, prospective business owners and developers alike will notice a significant drop in Jefferson County’s impact fees.

During a required periodic reassessment of Jefferson County’s development impact fees, the Jefferson County Commission cut $5,080 off of the one-time fees paid for every newly constructed single-family home.

The changes, which will take place on August 23, will reduce the impact fees for a newly-constructed single family home from $6,700 to $1,622.

The biggest part of the cut will be the reduction of the current $5,991 impact fee for schools imposed on each newly built singe-family home, which will fall to $1. It also cut the existing $4,185 fee for schools assessed for every newly constructed apartment unit to $1.

The impact fees for emergency medical services, law enforcement, parks services and administration services will increase by $912.

On a 4-1 vote last Thursday, the commission, pointing to a nearly 8 percent falloff in student enrollment in Jefferson County Schools over the past four years, virtually eliminated residential impact fees to help financially offset the costs new residential development creates for school systems.

“I understand that there are some new housing developments coming online here, and it’s something that we need to keep our finger on the pulse,” said Commissioner Steve Stolipher, a pro-business conservative and a commercial real estate broker. “But right now, I don’t believe that the data support” assessing impact fees for schools.

Commercial fees wiped out

The same 4-1 commission majority also voted to end impact fees assessed on six categories of new commercial development. Those fees range from $64 for every 1,000 square feet of warehouse construction to $221 for every 1,000 square feet of business park development.

The cuts will also occur on August 23.

Impact fees are assessed when developers apply for a new structure’s building permit.

Commercial impact fees are designed solely to defray the costs that new development imposes on police agencies and emergency medical services. New businesses don’t affect school and park services, according to a consultant’s evaluation.

The county commission is required to reassess and potentially reset impact fees at least every five years.

Stolipher said eliminating impact fees for commercial development will be a step toward achieving the bigger overall goal of improving the county’s economy and job growth. “If we have any commercial growth in the county, certainly it’s going to pay us back tenfold,” he said.

“If we have an industry that comes in and wants to build here, they’re going to want to hire people. That’s going to be money that’s going to be put back into the economy here.”

Stolipher also pointed out that the county has set low commercial impact fee rates that have generated a modest amount of money. “I don’t see that we would ever need to implement an impact [fee] on a business that’s coming into Jefferson County,” he said. “I think that [having a commercial impact fee] deters them more than it would attract them. … It’s very competitive out there when we’re trying to attract people into Jefferson County or West Virginia for that matter.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb, a self-described moderate Republican and a family farmer, was the lone holdout against virtually eliminating impact fees for schools and against ending the fees on commercial development altogether.

Calling the action on school impact fees too drastic and “short-sighted,” Tabb said she supported consultant TischlerBise’s most recently lowered recommendation to set a school impact fee at $2,920 for single-family homes and $1,450 for multifamily apartments.

Last September, using highly technical growth-cost formulas, TischlerBise proposed a $10,425 single-family impact fee for schools, as well as a $4,212 apartment fee to benefit schools. However, the current commission and the last commission roundly rejected those fee proposals as excessive, based on inaccurate student enrollment data and growth assumptions.

Superintendent: Fees are good for long term

In February, Superintendent of Schools Bondy Shay Gibson urged the commission to take a longer-term view rather than a short-term view in adjusting impact fees. Deciding to cut or eliminate impact fees based on data from a handful of years can be premature, she said.

Gibson said the county commission should continue to collect impact fees even though the county’s public schools have shown an enrollment decline over the past four years.

“You could take three years’ worth of data out of the last 10 and say, ‘Well, that means … we’re never going to grow again,’” she said. “If you’ve looked out here around in the county and seen the housing developments and the businesses that are going up, there’s no way we won’t have growth in the future.”

Tabb said TischlerBise’s revised impact fees recommendations were “much more realistic.” She said the county was experiencing a spurt in residential development that could boost school enrollments quickly.

“These things can turn around, and we are seeing amazing growth right now,” she said. “Homes are being built really fast right now, and it’s going to impact the school system.”

Tabb pointed to a housing development of 642 town houses and single-family homes that the Jefferson County Planning Commission green-lighted last month. That development, to be called Hunter Hills, is located on 107 acres off Charles Town Road just east of the Hospice of the Panhandle’s facility.

“By the time we get the [new enrollment] data in, another year has gone by, and to try to retroactively come up with some funding capital expenses — it’s just too short-sighted to me,” she added.

Continuing to collect school impact fees, she said, will help ease the financial burden on existing county residents to pay for facilities such as a new high school and additional athletic fields that will likely be needed in the future.

Tabb also took issue with zeroing out commercial impact fees altogether. She emphasized how commercial fees support law enforcement and emergency medical services. “Those are two areas where we are always looking for ways to bolster their bottom line to provide services to our citizens,” she said.

“At that [current] reduced rate, I think it’s very reasonable for any business to pay coming to Jefferson County,” she added. “Anywhere else, except maybe in the rest of West Virginia, they would be paying some fees upfront.”

Stolipher didn’t hesitate to “humbly disagree” with Tabb. He pointed out that residential impact fees for police will triple and impact fees for emergency services will double. “That’s going to far make up from collecting any in commercial impact fees, in my opinion,” he said.

Tabb responded that assessing no commercial impact fees still reduces the overall financial support that could be collected for those public safety services. “I don’t want to leave any funding support for these critical services that we provide to our citizens underutilized,” she said.

Stolipher and Commissioner Clare Ath, who voted to set the school impact fees at $1, spoke at what partly became a political rally against the school board last month. Stolipher and Ath talked about the need to replace three school board members up for reelection in May.

After Thursday’s meeting, Stolipher and Ath said that their separate votes to cut impact fees for schools were based solely on student enrollment data.

Stolipher also pointed out how TischlerBise’s forecasts for the county’s student enrollment in the past have been far off their marks. In February, he tried to initiate a refund for the $54,000 that the county paid for the company’s current impact fee analysis.

Stolipher and Ath explained that school impact fees were set at $1 — rather than eliminated altogether — to avoid a strict legal justification review that would be required to reinstate impact fees in the future if the school fees were dropped entirely.

Impact fees are supposed to offset government costs only created by new development. The fees can only be spent on capital improvements costing more than $20,000, according to the county’s website. In addition, those improvements must have a useful life of three or more years.

According to county government figures, the county last year collected nearly $2.4 million in impact fees for schools, almost $187,000 for parks, nearly $27,000 for law enforcement and about $21,000 for emergency medical services.

Last Thursday, Stolipher said some of those impact fees collected for schools must be spent soon or residents who paid those fees will be notified of their ability to request a refund.

According to the county’s website, impact fees must be spent within six years or residents eligible to receive a refund can request one.

County officials said they received calls from citizens asking about possible refunds after Thursday’s commission meeting. The county’s planning and engineering department has not yet responded to questions from the Spirit asking when citizens could be eligible to receive refunds and how large those refunds might be.

Last month, county officials reported that about $8 million in unspent impact fees had accumulated for the school system. In addition, about $191,000 was on hand and unspent for law enforcement, about $495,000 for parks and nearly $18,000 for emergency medical services.

From 2004 through last year, the county had collected $33.4 million in impact fees for schools, $2.1 million for parks, $2 million for emergency medical service and $625,000 for law enforcement.

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