The hottest issue two years ago in Fort Mill will now be settled, in part, by an all but meaningless vote.
Fort Mill Town Council is looking at an amendment to its ordinances. The change would exclude schools and volunteer fire departments from the long list of land uses requiring an impact fee to construct. Mirroring a state law change from last summer. Council passed the first of three readings Monday.
The irony of a final decision on the once contentious issue is, it doesn’t matter much. State law pre-empts town ordinance. So schools and volunteer fire departments can’t be charged regardless what Council decides.
“It was kind of silly if we had an impact fee on a fire station or a school,” said Councilman Larry Huntley.
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Yet at the time, there wasn’t much choice.
In August 2015, the town instituted impact fees. The fees varied based on what was being built and how much strain that use put on local roads, fire service, municipal staff and recreation needs. But it applied to new construction from businesses to schools to churches to homes. Which vexed Council members as residents clamored for some way to make residential growth pay for itself while school and business leaders spoke out against the fees.
Council wanted to apply fees for the mountain of residential projects it faced, but didn’t want to scare off new business investment. They didn’t like applying fees to schools either, but the law didn’t exempt them. If the town selectively chose not to charge schools or certain businesses, they opened themselves to potential legal challenges from builders who did have to pay.
The town compromised. A parks and recreation fee, which only applies to residential construction, got almost the full rate the town could charge by law. A transportation fee, the top need for Council as residents then and now argued for more spending on roads, was put in place but with no charge. Transportation had the highest impact on new business and schools, with relatively little on residential construction.
Fees for fire and municipal service fell in between on their impact to business and schools. Council chose to charge half what the law allowed.
A state proviso excluded schools from impact fees for almost a year after the 2015 town decision. It carried over until the state law change last summer. State Rep. Raye Felder, hearing from town constituents as the impact fee discussion simmered, championed those efforts.
Without those changes, a typical new elementary school would’ve had to pay the town $35,000. A middle school would be almost $46,000 and a high school $74,000 — all based on 2015 values. The schools would’ve been on the hook for far more money had the transportation fee been imposed or the fire and municipal ones raised.
Now that schools and volunteer stations don’t have to pay — municipal fire stations still do, and the town is factoring a payment to itself into a coming second station — it’s that many more people without a hangup on impact fee charges. In passing all four fees, Council allowed itself the opportunity to change the rates at any time. Which is why, for instance, they set the transportation fee up but charged nothing for it.
Now, with school concerns out of the way, might the town look to charge more for fire, municipal or road needs?
“Right now on that we’re going to kind of just wait and see,” Huntley said.
There isn’t any immediate plan to change the rates, which still would impact businesses. Huntley voted against the impact fees two years ago. They only passed by a single vote. Time has shown, Huntley said, that business still will invest in Fort Mill. The massive, ongoing Kingsley project is one example. The several restaurants and related businesses coming downtown are another.
“If you ride down Main Street you can see it hasn’t exactly stopped growth,” Huntley said.
Upping the transportation rate, though, would create a much sharper increase in the fees. Huntley doesn’t anticipate that move anytime soon. Along with concerns on new business, he’d be worried the amount of revenue collected would be nowhere near enough to solve road issues in town.
Most concerns residents have involve the type of projects state transportation officials, Pennies for Progress, the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study — large county, state and federal funding sources — or similar groups would have to fund.
“You still wouldn’t make a dent in it,” Huntley said of impact fee revenue.