York County officials are plugging away at a plan that could make homebuilders pay for part of the cost of expanding schools.
But developers oppose the plan, saying it could drive up home prices and drive them out of town.
The proposal, called an "adequate school facilities ordinance," would give school districts the power to negotiate with developers for compensation before new neighborhoods get built. Developers could be asked to provide land, money or facilities before they start building to ensure there will be space in schools for the children who move in there. Developers also could phase in the neighborhood over time or build fewer units.
Proponents of the plan say it would give school districts much-needed help in dealing with growth.
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"I would love to be in a position to say to a developer, 'Look, this is the impact. If you can at least help us in the meantime by providing some temporary relief for X, that would go a long way in helping with the burden,'" said Russell Booker, superintendent of York schools. "We don't have any teeth right now to do that."
York County was South Carolina's fastest-growing county between July 2006 and July 2007.
A 'very confusing' process
Here's how the plan would work: When a developer asks to build in York County, county government officials would contact the local school district to find out if it had enough space for the new students. If there were enough space, the builder would be allowed to continue with the application process as usual. If there is not enough space, the builder could either negotiate a deal with the school district or wait five years.
"The real goal in having this discussion is hopefully coordinating their plans with our plans," County Manager Jim Baker said during a recent planning meeting. "It potentially saves them (schools) money and it potentially saves the developers money."
The idea for the ordinance might sound peachy for school and county officials, but it's raising a red flag for those who advocate for the development industry.
Tim Morgan, deputy director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said the proposal might scare builders into choosing nearby counties with the same appeal but no facilities ordinance.
"This will certainly have a very negative impact on housing affordability in York County," said Morgan, whose coalition represents clients in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. "It's going to create a very confusing approval process because you're dealing with four school districts, and each one has different requirements regarding how many students they want to assign to a building. That is certainly going to create questions and make it more difficult for developers to do work in York County."
The increased cost of building in York County would be passed on to buyers in the form of higher home prices, he said.
Curtis Sieck, president of the Homebuilders Association of York County, said he is ready to sue if the ordinance goes through.
"We will take legal action against the county if they try to ram this down our throats," he said. "We've been trying to work with them to show them other ways of giving money to the schools and they've turned a blind eye to us."
Sieck said asking developers to pay for school capacity is the same as charging impact fees, which can no longer be created. The Fort Mill district added its current impact fee before the fees were outlawed.
"Our biggest concern is that they're going to put so much tax on new construction that nobody's going to be able to afford to live here anymore," he said.
But those who support the proposal say it isn't designed to hurt business.
"I don't desire for it to be devastating to any party or any stakeholder," said Keith Callicutt, superintendent of Fort Mill schools. "I want it to be a positive partnership. But when you're growing to the extent that we're growing, I think it demands that we look at how we're managing growth and how we're planning for growth. I think this gives us an avenue to assist in that area."
Fort Mill is considered South Carolina's fastest-growing school district.
A key component of the plan would be to increase communication between school, city and county officials. That would save taxpayers money in the long run, said Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody.
School districts would be asked to communicate with county staff about building plans, sites for new schools and school capacity. City and county governments would be required to tell the schools about new developments, consult with school districts before approving those developments and sometimes take part in negotiations between school district officials and developers.
Some of that communication already happens, but the ordinance would require it.
Moody said she hopes the proposal won't change how the school district works with city and county governments, just guarantee collaboration.
"I feel more confident now that there's a way that we can legally all come to the table and be able to make this a reality," she said.
A plan like this has been discussed for several years, but a formal draft only recently started to take shape.
Representatives from the school districts and the county have been working with a consultant to create a draft ordinance. That group held its final planning meeting this week. Now the proposal will be presented to city agencies that have not been part of the process and will be reviewed by lawyers for the school districts to make sure school boards would not lose their decision-making power.
After that, the various governing boards could start the approval process.
For the ordinance to work, school districts, city governments and the county government all would have to sign on.