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Impact fees a good idea whose time won't ever come

Staff column

POSTED: April 20, 2017 6:30 p.m.
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Jeff Whitten is managing editor of the Bryan County News.

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What with all the traffic fun in Richmond Hill anymore, it’s good the Bryan County Commission is again considering impact fees on residential development.

But a note of caution: This same body, albeit with different members, has been playing badmitton with the idea of requiring impact fees for more than a decade, so I’m not going to hold my breath.

What I will do is note one of the biggest arguments I keep hearing when it comes to trying to slow down residential development and let infrastructure catch its breath is "you can’t tell people what to do with their property."

That’s true. Not only are the courts full of county commissions who get sued by developers and or property owners for that very reason, but I can’t even get my neighbor to stop playing Luke Bryan music so loud in his garage I can hear it in my backyard two acres away. Awful.

Still, there are limits to what people can do with their property. If someone wants to make a one-stop hog sausage plant on his land right next door to, say, the county administration building, or somebody else wants to bulldoze some of his pine trees next to one of the Buckheads to stick a used mobile home park specializing in angry crackheads, someone in government will tell those folks what they can do with their property real quick. They’ll use the z-word, too. Zoning.

"Well, it’s not zoned for that land use," they’ll say at the planning and zoning meeting, and that will be that.

Naturally, the reason you don’t let somebody put up a sausage making factory next door to one of the Buckheads is because, as much as most folks love good sausage, not too many want it made from scratch right down the street from where they park their Volvos. And that’s why zoning was invented, so things won’t wind up where we don’t want them and instead will be where people either want them or don’t have the political clout, aka deep pockets, to keep them away.

But nothing is permanent, not even zoning. It’s changed all the time. This usually tends to happen when somebody wants to rezone a bunch of timber land into another planned unit development. That’s where, say, 500 houses and some apartments or townhomes can go on 200 acres if the developer digs a couple of ponds and builds a playground and leaves a few buffers of trees here and along the main road so people don’t have to see what the residents of Pretentious Plantation keep in their backyards leaning against all that pristine vinyl siding.

So where do impact fees enter into all this? Simple. People who move into a community use resources taxpayers have already had to pay taxes for, some a couple times over.

The more people you get, the more government resources you need — schools, EMS, fire protection, police protection, etc. — which costs more money, which means more taxes. Impact fee proponents ask why a community passes on the cost for additional resources to current residents, who are already paying.

Let the builder of the home pay a fee for the impact the people who buy the home he builds will have on the community. He can pass it off on the buyer, who will either pay up and the money can help widen roads and buy schoolbooks and ambulances, or they won’t and the need for extra books and ambulances won’t be there. Opponents always say this will negatively impact developers in the wallet. Well, it might, and that’s too bad. I know some developers, even like a few of them.

Besides, without developers I wouldn’t have a home to live in, or more places than anyone needs to go spend what little money I have. Developers are not evil people, though some of them do dress funny.

But we’re talking impacts here. The right to swing your first ends when it hits somebody else’s nose, and the right do what you will with your property should be always be judged in how it impacts everybody else. The impacts of development are most noticeable in traffic, where it now takes half an hour to go five miles. But you also see it in warnings the Floridan aquifer is stressed. You see it in $100 million bond issues so taxpayers can fund more schools to make room for more kids whose own kids might be forced to drink the Ogeechee River before we’re through.

We can have impact fees and it might help, or it might not. Or we can keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. And if I were a betting man, I’d bet on the latter.

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