Wicomico to discuss developer impact fees repeal

Following an hour of discussion and public hearing on legislation to repeal impact fees, the Wicomico County Council on Tuesday tabled the matter.

“It’s pretty clear that impact fees will be repealed one way or the other … but let’s make sure we do it correctly,” Councilman Marc Kilmer said.

“Let’s get some of these issues worked out and figure out what we want to do before we rush into voting against it. Let’s know exactly what we are doing. We need to take time to make sure we repeal it correctly,” he said.

The vote to table followed discussion about whether or not the entire section of the county code referring to impact fees should be deleted or if it should be left intact and the impact fee charge set to zero.

Keeping it in the code would give flexibility to future councils, said Council Vice President Matt Holloway.

Councilman Ernie Davis said a lot of hard work was put into writing that section and Council shouldn’t just eliminate it, but reevaluate it, so it doesn’t cripple today’s construction industry.

It’s uncertain what state funding will be cut in the future, and if the fees will have to be reinstated someday, he said.

But Councilman Joe Holloway wanted to completely eliminate the section.

“Do we ever really want to go back to this? Is it going to look good from a business standpoint? We want to be business friendly in Wicomico County. I think we just need to get rid of it. I said that the other day about sprinkler systems and somebody said, ‘Well, it never will. It’s in the state’s hands.’ Well, this is something we can do,” he said.

Regardless of impact fees schools will be built and maintained, he said.

Agreeing, Councilman Larry Dodd said the council will always fund schools, since education is a priority.

County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg asked the council to eliminate the section completely, calling it “much cleaner” and a more positive message to the marketplace.

The County Council tabled the matter.

During the public hearing before that decision, Mike Dunn, CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, asked the council to consider saving the county code because of all the hard work that has already been done, “in case we should ever have to go back to an impact fee.”

“It would remain in the code but it would be a toothless piece of legislation,” he said.

If impact fees are repealed, Dunn said he hopes council members will understand their obligation to continuing funding, in the millions of dollars, education and school construction.

Strausburg spoke in favor of the repeal, saying the question is whether or not impact fees would be imposed if they were newly introduced today, and not 10 years ago when the economic climate was different and the mantra was, “growth has to pay for growth.”

“We have new impediments to single-family housing now with (required) sprinklers and the BAT system unit. Even though the governor has given relief with regard to BAT, the Maryland legislature could reconsider it,” Strausburg said.

He was referring to the Best Available Technology septic systems. In 2012, the state mandated the septic systems be installed on new construction, or on any replacement septic system. In August, Gov. Larry Hogan announced his administration would lift that requirement everywhere, except in environmentally sensitive critical areas.

Dave Ryan, executive director of Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development, said from 2003 to 2006 “we were growing jobs in Wicomico at three or four times the rate of Maryland and the nation as a whole.”

Coming out of the recession, local economic growth has been more sluggish, largely due to construction, he said.

“What we’re seeing in the marketplace is steady decline in the market,” he said, agreeing with Strausburg that the environment is “vastly different from it was 10 years ago.”

Joe Wilson of the Coastal Association of Realtors also favored repealing the fees, saying they increase the cost of new development and can reduce the number of projects that are economically feasible.

He called them an unreliable source of funding.

Donnie Messick of Messick Home Improvements in Salisbury said affordable housing has been eliminated because of regulations and fees put on the industry in recent years.

“The impact fee and septic legislation, between both of those things, that’s a $20,000 cost — $15,000 for BAT and $5,000 for impact fees. That’s a huge number for anybody building a new house to afford,” Messick said.

Mary Ashanti, president of the Wicomico County NAACP, said she’s concerned about funding for education if impact fees are repealed.

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