Who will help pay more for new Fort Mill schools and how much?

Higher impact fees on new homes in the Fort Mill school district started in August.
Higher impact fees on new homes in the Fort Mill school district started in August.

Fort Mill schools could be getting more money from all the new homes being built here.

York County's planning commission recommended an increase in impact fees, but at less than the amount the school district requested last fall and well below the figure allowed by state law and based on demographics within the district.

"Any relief is appreciated, but we firmly believe that a number closer to what the consultant identified as the actual impact should be the impact fee," said Kristy Spears, school board chairwoman.

New homes and apartments built within the Fort Mill School District now pay $2,500 per unit. That amount hasn't changed since impact fees began in 1996. Last fall, the district asked York County to up the charge to $10,000.

A county study determined what could, by law, be charged. Impact fees are charges on new construction and must be based on the impact building has on a certain area. In this case, the equation considered what it costs to educate students and how many new students a typical home brings.

The county study found a new home in Fort Mill could be charged almost $19,000. An apartment could be charged more than $12,500.

Spears supported those figures when they came out of the study a month ago.

"That's the impact that a new home is having," she said then. "Period. That's also the ability we have, under state law, to pass those costs on to new growth."

Supporters of increased impact fees, including school board members, say someone is going to pay for new schools and other education costs. More from impact fees means less needed, they argue, from existing residents through raised taxes to pay off bonds used to finance new school construction.

Yet the final number will come from York County Council, influenced by the recommendation given to them from the county planning commission which led the study. The planning commission didn't recommend anything close to the top end charge allowed by state law.

Instead, the group recommended $5,038 for each new single-family home. More than twice the current impact fee charge, but less than a third of what could be charged.

The planning commission recommended keeping the $2,500 fee in place for apartments.

While planning commission recommendations carry considerable weight, they aren't always reflected in final outcomes.

"Getting to us, it's just starting," said Councilman Chad Williams, one of three York County Council members serving part of the Fort Mill school district.

As of early Wednesday afternoon Williams hadn't received the formal planning commission recommendation, but he'd heard about it.

"I've been getting emails about it, people have been telling me about it, wanting me to make up my mind early," Williams said, "but I've got to respect the process."

Williams wants to have the public hearing, along with staff and other input, before deciding if the planning commission numbers are on target.

"We'll listen to that recommendation and make up our mind accordingly," he said.

Councilwoman Allison Love doesn't represent any part of the school district, but she does represent the similarly high-growth Clover school district. Love sees similar growth pressures in Lake Wylie. She, too, said the recent recommendation is important but it won't decide everything.

"I am very likely to support an amount higher than recommended by the planning commission," Love said.

At this point, however, her mind isn't made up.

"This impact fee appears to offer some relief to the current taxpayers as well," Love said. "I am still listening to all sides at this point in the proposal."

Council having final say is one reason school board members aren't overly concerned with the planning commission number coming in lower than requested.

"They have the ability to make that number whatever they think it needs to be," said Patrick White, school board member.

Council is looking at the school district impact fee, but also a coming study which could start its own new impact fees on residential and non-residential construction. That effort isn't tied to the Fort Mill school decision, but it's similar — as are relatively new impact fees inside Fort Mill town limits and proposed ones in Tega Cay and Lancaster County — in reaching toward a goal that spans municipalities.

Impact fees, municipal leaders repeatedly say, is an issue of growth paying for growth.

"It's an opportunity to have growth pay for itself as it relates to the Fort Mill school district," Love said of the current question, "who I believe is in a unique position of need."

According to the school district, the original $2,500 per residence charge was put in place based on projections that didn't pan out in favor of the district. The mid-90s study projected the district would need 1.68 elementary schools, .86 new middle schools and .66 new high schools by 2020.

"That is definitely not the way it's turned out," said Joe Burke, district spokesperson.

It turned out the district will have built seven elementary, five middle and two high schools by 2020, with three more schools approved for construction.

Even the study from more than two decades ago recommended a $5,000 fee, before leaders at the time settled on $2,500.

"We were a little disappointed that they chose to use a number from a 1996 study," White said. "You would think after 22 years that it would be obvious that that number might have changed some."

Burke said the school district supports the recent study showing possible fees several times higher than the planning commission recommendation, and council's right to make whatever decision members see fit. With three council readings and a public hearing needed, the number could change multiple times before it's set, Burke said.

Rather than advocating for a specific number, the district is working to make parents and other stakeholders aware of what's happening.

"We're hoping to get the word out, and let people know what it means to the district, what it means to the community and what it means to the taxpayers," Burke said.

Developers are "doing everything they can," White said, to keep the impact fee low.

"Since the mid 90s, the taxpayers in Fort Mill have been subsidizing the profitability of the developers," he said. "This impact fee is a way for growth to truly pay for growth."

Board members say residential and commercial properties could see tax relief if impact fees rise by a considerable margin. Spears was "obviously disappointed" a number recommended in 1996 is recommended again now. She believes the community can support higher home prices caused by the higher impact fee.

"It would be part of the overall purchase decision that a new resident would make," she said. "That's a fair decision to put in front of the consumer if they want to live in the Fort Mill School District."

Want a say?

York County Council has the first of three readings on the impact fee decision set for May 21. It takes place at 6 p.m. at 6 S. Congress St., York.

A public hearing accompanies second reading on June 27. Due to the large crowd expected, it will be held at 6 p.m. at the McCelvey Center, 212 E. Jefferson St., York.

Third reading comes at 6 p.m. July 16, again at 6 S. Congress St., York.

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