Walter Heinsohn, fresh off his appointment to a second four-year term and re-election as chairman, listened Monday night as his planning commission heard what it has coming the next few months.
“This does look like the most important thing we’ve considered since I’ve been chair,” he said.
The York County group has impact fees on its agenda. Not just the next agenda, either. Members were told to plan for an extra hour, maybe hour-and-a-half of discussion when it meets in February, March and April. They were told paid county planners wouldn’t have a recommendation for or against impact fees.
Audra Miller, county planning director, told commissioners that any of them who have wondered how important their group’s work is will have those questions answered through impact fee discussion.
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“That’s a very, very important recommendation,” she said.
York County Council approved a Dec. 18 resolution putting the planning commission in charge of studying impact fees. The Fort Mill School District asked in previous weeks for a bump on its development impact fee from $2,500 to $10,000 per new residence. The county had its own ideas of potential development impact fees. Both groups agreed to share costs on a required study before a new or increased fee can be charged.
The Dec. 18 vote listed a goal of getting the study done within four months. Meaning a consultant, also approved by council, should work with and present its findings to the planning commission at each monthly meeting through April, with a vote expected from the commission either in April or May.
There is no guarantee that vote will involve a $10,000 impact fee for Fort Mill schools.
“The Fort Mill School District requested $10,000 but it’s up to this consultant and what this study finds,” Miller said. “They may only find a justification for $5,000 or may see a justification for $11,000. That’s the consultant’s role.”
By law, a new fee has to be treated like an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan. It has to have a study and a capital needs plan for how to spend money from the new fee. Increased or not, the Fort Mill school fee only would be charged on new residential construction. The York County fee or fees could be charged on residential, commercial or other types of construction depending on what fees, if any, the county chooses.
The Fort Mill school fee is simpler. A $2,500 fee on each new residential unit began in 1996. The study essentially would determine whether that number is still the right one. It’s become common practice in the decades since the fee started for new homes and apartments to pay it.
A new county fee could be more challenging. When the Town of Fort Mill started its new set of impact fees in 2015 for municipal services, fire protection, recreation and transportation, leaders there faced criticism from the school and business communities concerned the added cost would hurt their bottom lines. Schools have since been exempted statewide, but costs to commercial and even other civic uses remain.
Fees are based on the impact certain uses have, so a church that puts cars onto the road would be charged based on that impact for a transportation fee, for instance. If the county sets fees, they couldn’t pick and choose which types of construction might be exempt.
“By state law there are very few exceptions,” Miller said.
Projects already working through the planning pipeline wouldn’t get a pass either. Fees typically are collected when permits are pulled, so once a fee is in place a new construction would have to pay it even if the home or business was approved well in advance. The fee comes with actual construction.
“If there’s not a structure on it, you owe an impact fee (when construction begins),” Miller said.
One possible exemption from impact fees would be a project predating the fees, with a development agreement specifically stating any new rules wouldn’t apply. Development agreements are typical for large, multi-year projects like the Spratt property in Fort Mill, where the town worked through a more than 700-acre plan slated for 2,650 residences and 450,000 square feet of commercial space, about the same time it was setting up new fees.
“They have development agreements on basically all of their large projects,” said Stephen Allen, planning services manager for the county.
A development agreement alone doesn’t mean impact fees are excluded. The Spratt property agreement states impact or stormwater fees will be charged as long as the “fees are applied consistently and in the same manner” as with other properties in the town.
Not all York County projects would be subject to the new fees, if passed. Fort Mill charges its own. The new county fees wouldn’t be charged there, or in municipal limits like Tega Cay, Rock Hill or Clover. Unincorporated areas like Lake Wylie, Baxter and the Carowinds area would be subject to county fees.
When Fort Mill began its fees in 2015, its consultant study determined the maximum amount the town could charge on each fee. Fort Mill Town Council then picked what percentage of that allowable amount they would charge. Down to the transportation fee, which the town put on the books but hasn’t charged anything for since a transportation fee hits the business community hardest.
The planning commission in York County could have the task of recommending not only what fees to charge, but at what percentage. Or, perhaps a flat fee within the allowable limits.
“This is your recommendation,” Miller told the group at the Jan. 8 meeting. “Planning staff is neutral on this.”
The Feb. 12 planning commission meeting and monthly meetings to follow will be open. There won’t be public comment periods.
“They’re all open the public,” Allen said. “The public wouldn’t necessarily be able to participate.”
Members who can participate will need to be there. This fall, a letter was sent to county planning commission and zoning board of appeals members encouraging them to attend meetings after some dips in attendance. York County Councilman Michael Johnson told his group there were meetings canceled and “often” votes of 3-2 despite the planning commission having nine members.
“The attendance numbers are not great,” he said back in September.
Council will have final say on both the Fort Mill school impact fee and any new county ones, should the planning commission recommend them. Those recommendations can’t come 3-2, or even 4-0. State law requires a majority of the total membership make the recommendation.
“It’s got to be five, at a minimum,” Miller told the group. “I need everybody here. I need everybody’s vote.”