FILE PHOTO - Workers install power lines at Bonita Lakes off Imperial Parkway in Bonita Springs on Thursday, August 30, 2012. / News-press.com file photo
If you go
The Lee County Local Planning Agency will meet at 8:30 a.m. today inside the commission’s chambers, 2012 Main St., Fort Myers.
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Lee County’s Local Planning Agency tried to block a proposed two year moratorium on impact fees.
In 4-3 vote, planning agency members ruled that commissioners can’t lift the fees without finding an alternate source to fund infrastructure expansions.
Commissioners needed to ask the planning agency whether a suspension conforms with Lee’s comprehensive plan – a framework for development and government.
Despite the planning agency’s denial, the commission can still vote to suspend impact fees Feb. 12.
Assistant County Attorney Donna Marie Collins advised that the suspension would be allowed under the plan. But the planning agency disagreed.
Levied against new construction, builders typically pay the fees upfront and pass along their cost to home and business owners.
In turn, Lee County builds new roads, schools, parks and emergency service infrastructure with the fees.
The concept behind the fees is new development pays to grow infrastructure.
The building industry has lobbied Lee County commissioners to suspend the fees in recent years, as a means to stimulate construction.
Planning agency member Roger Strelow pointed out there’s no data to support that suspending impact fees spurs construction; although, a number of Florida counties have lifted the fees on that premise.
Lee County stands to lose $10.5 million over the next two years, if impact fees are lifted.
An increase in sales taxes could replace impact fees, Community Development Director Mary Gibbs said.
Lee County could tack on a sales tax of up to 3 percent and collect an estimated $277.2 million from it, according to a report the county commissioned last year.
Lee County doesn’t levy a sales tax of its own. The county, however, collects a share of state sales taxes.
Some of the $277.2 million in estimated revenue a countywide sales tax would collect, would go to municipalities and other government agencies.
In addition to upping sales taxes, the planning agency kicked around the idea of mobility fees.
But Gibbs warned it could take about two years to put policies in place to begin collecting mobility fees.
The commission’s advisory committee on sustainability recommended adopting mobility fees, because they encourage development in areas with existing infrastructure rather than sprawl.
Developers in urban areas, with roads to support new construction, would pay lower mobility fees than a builder who puts a housing development in a rural or undeveloped area of Lee County.
School Board Member Tom Scott appeared in front of the agency to warn against approving a two-year suspension.
The school system could be faced with a big bill for adding computer technology, he said.
Additionally, a project to expand Dunbar High School could encounter funding problems if impact fees are lifted, another school system representative warned.
When asked about land purchases the school system made during the peak of the real estate market and whether the school board should sell off its unused inventory of properties to come up with funding, Scott didn’t seem interested.
“I’d rather take a timeout on that and hold the inventory and see how things develop,” Scott said.
Scott, however, did say the school board recently talked about levying a sales tax – the school system can levy up to half-a-percent, he said.
That measure would have to be passed by voters in 2014, Scott said.
County staff can also find other funding sources to send to impact fee accounts.
From this morning's The News-Press
Lee County’s Local Planning Agency could clear the way today for commissioners to vote on a two-year suspension of impact fees.
The advisory group is set to consider an ordinance that calls for Lee to lift the fees it levies on new construction. The county uses the charges to fund expansions to roadways, schools, emergency services and parks.
Local Planning Agency members must consider the moratorium, but commissioners will have the final say Feb. 12 when they hold a public meeting on the matter.
“I don’t think that you’re going to spur a lot of new development by suspending impact fees,” agency member Noel Andress said. “But I think it’s about time we had a conversation about how new infrastructure is funded.”
Impact fees, Andress said, aren’t sustainable. After the real estate market bust, impact fees took a plunge, leaving Lee with little incoming money to pay for new public works.
Mobility fees, which other jurisdictions levy, are a better option, Andress said. Those fees are imposed based on a study that estimates the amount of traffic and additional amenities needed to support a new structure, Andress said. The structure of those fees, he said, encourages urban infill rather than suburban sprawl.
The commission’s sustainability advisory committee recommended exploring mobility fees, if impact fees are lifted, said Roger Strelow, who sits on the planning agency and sustainability committee.
Funding sources for transportation have dried up the past several years, as the federal and state governments face fiscal constraints of their own, he said.
“There is just going to be less money available for transportation infrastructure of various kinds, and it’s very likely to be the case for the foreseeable future,” Strelow said. “We need a very fundamental, fresh look at how we fund not only highways, but mass transit.”
The local planning agency, last year, recommended a moratorium on impact fees. The commission, however, decided to keep them.
Agency member Jim Green voted in favor of the moratorium then, but he wouldn’t support it today, he said.
The building industry is rebounding; the real estate market is on the rise and Lee, he said, needs the fees to pay for the amenities that lure people to the area.
“They truly impact our quality of life,” Green said. “If we stop those, we stop our contribution to why people want to be here.”
Builders should receive incentives to develop and redevelop properties in urban areas, Green said. Those incentives should be examined as part of changes to the county’s comprehensive plan instead of addressed with a suspension of impact fees, he said.
The commission, however, seems poised to pass the moratorium, regardless of the planning agency’s recommendation.
Three commissioners, John Manning, Cecil Pendergrass and Larry Kiker, have voiced support for suspending the fees in some form.
If passed the moratorium would be for two years, but commissioners would have to re-evaluate its effect at the one year mark and hold a vote to keep the suspension in place for a second year.
Lee would lose about $10.5 million if it stopped collecting the fees for the next two years, according to county staff projections.
The Lee County School District had planned to fund an expansion of Dunbar High School with impact fees, according to county documents.
Estero Fire Rescue officials have expressed concern they may have to raise property taxes to pay for debts tied to impact fees.