Part one of a series about how this will affect builders, developers and us
With Hillsborough County’s new population projections growing from 330,000 new residents by the year 2020 to 600,000 new residents arriving by the year 2040, it’s clear to county staff and citizens alike that transportation needs are the most important thing to address.
When the Florida Legislature dropped regulations on developers in May 2011, saying they no longer had to pay fees for building schools, parks and roads, legislators claimed it was to move a slow economy.
What happened instead is that counties were left to find ways to build (and improve) parks, schools, roads, bridges and other transportation means without the help of the state.
This dropping of fees, which is referred to by county and state employees as “concurrency,” was the topic of a five-part series in The Observer News that began in August 2015 and ended two weeks ago.
Now, Hillsborough County’s attempts to keep up with growth — especially traffic and other transportation issues — is under the microscope by both builders and concerned citizens alike.
When Sandra Murman first proposed a “mobility fee,” county staff was not quite sure what that would entail. But since last fall, meetings have been held with builders and developers and citizens representing various areas and groups from around the county.
The meetings are held in County Center, so naturally they are open to the public under the Sunshine Law, but there is not always time for comments because there is so much information for staff to disseminate.
Two meetings were attended by The Observer News Jan. 12 — one with developers and builders, and the other, later in the day, with citizens. This story will attempt to cut through 12 pages of notes to give readers a basic understanding of what happened and what is about to take place next.
“As soon as the County Attorney’s Office gets the authority from County Commissioners to rewrite an ordinance to address a mobility fee,” said Lucia Garsys, who helped moderate the meeting, “we can begin to put some things down. Right now, everything is so preliminary we don’t have any concrete answers [to what will happen and to the questions that were asked].”
Garsys is the chief administrator for development and infrastructure services for Hillsborough County.
She said that a mobility fee would be an ordinance that would compel developers to pay for impacts on traffic, roads, bridges, sidewalks, transportation systems and anything that “moves” the people who come into the area to live in the homes and work in the retail or industrial spaces that are developed.
As explained in a telephone interview with Mike Williams, director of transportation planning and development for the county, impact fees were assessed on each new home built from 1985 until the regulations were dropped (by the state) in 2011. These fees addressed all sorts of impacts resulting from new people, not just transportation. But now the transportation situation has become desperate and a measure has to be taken to alleviate it.
Garsys explained that Pasco County had long ago implemented a few cents in gas tax, property tax and other fees, so that it now has what she described as a “huge cauldron of money” to be able to give developers a break on building retail and industrial complexes that encourages jobs in their county.
“We don’t have a pot of money like they do,” she stated.
The developers asked why they should have to pay the burden of bad planning by Hillsborough County.
“I’m afraid we will be hit with this at the permitting stage,” said Mike Peterson, a long-time South County attorney and planning committee member. Peterson’s question was asked in different ways by several developers, who said they feared Hillsborough could not compete with other counties if the developers are charged fees they had not expected to pay when they started their projects. Any fees charged on projects underway would have to be passed on to buyers and that would discourage business, and therefore jobs.
“We did not budget this in,” was the main objection from several developers.
A percentage phasing in of fees is expected, Garsys said. But nothing is written yet.
One problem is that developers already have “credits” — fees they have paid to build planned projects that may not have been started, or worse yet, started and not finished.
But the county plans to somehow implement the mobility fee so that the impact zone fees already paid by developers may be sold or transferred. Several ways to do this were discussed; the pros and cons of each will make a whole story in itself in the near future.
But basically, the county is going from “impact zone fees” to “mobility zone fees.” There were 10 impact zones, which have been reduced to five mobility zones.
“The planning map is changing to encourage business and industry to be built inside the urban service zones,” Garsys said.
This, however, did not satisfy residents or developers.
Ed Barnes, representing the Sun City Center Community Association, said planning has been running at least 10 years behind.
“In the first place, I’m amazed the counties didn’t go after the state legislators when they dropped the developer’s regulations,” Barnes said in an interview after the citizen meeting. “This is ludicrous. How can the county expect to generate enough revenue now to tackle the things we must navigate every day like two lanes on 19th Avenue (Ruskin) and the tie-ups on the main state roads like 674 and Big Bend?”
George Niemann, representing the Dover Woods Homeowners Association, told the group gathered at the citizen meeting that after 12 years of following county growth and advocating for citizens’ rights, he has been told by county staff that developers have paid only an average of 16 percent of the transportation impact fees that have resulted from all the subdivisions and shopping malls that have recently been built.
“These figures came from County Administrator Mike Merrill himself,” Niemann said. “Low fees mean that we end up burdened with the other 84 percent of the costs. Commissioners have done nothing to change this situation for decades. When they finally came up with the idea of a sales tax increase, the public started asking questions about how this deficit was allowed to happen in the first place.”
Williams, the director of transportation and planning, said that county planners have a list of approximately 400 roads and streets projects it considers critical.
“How come Pasco has the money and we don’t?” Niemann asked.
Staff will continue meeting (separately) with developers and citizens until Feb. 4, when they go before the County Commission in the form of a “workshop.”
Several developers stated they did not like the term “workshop” because that had the connotation that decisions on how things were to proceed had been made.
“The word ‘update’ would be better,” several agreed.
Yet the difference in wording was not discussed at the citizen meeting.
“We will be having a workshop Feb. 4,” Garsys said. “We aren’t certain of the exact time, or if the public will have time to comment yet because we are in such a preliminary stage.”
Measures the county is considering to allow developers to use the “credits” (also referred to as offsets or credit accounts) they have already paid to the county if and when the mobility fee is assessed, will be explained in a separate news story in The Observer News after the next meetings are attended.
Changes will be vast, as currently, under the existing impact fee system, a developer pays an “impact fee” of about $1,800 for building a new single-family home. Mobility fees suggested for this same home would have the developer paying about $6,500 for each of these same homes, and developers fear their ongoing projects will have been under-budgeted if the fee applies to anything already in progress.
Meanwhile, residents say developers have not been paying their fair share and that the county is at fault for not having foreseen this coming and prepared for it as Pasco did.
“I will continue to help root out the causes of the deficit and consider fixing that before any new taxes are considered,” Niemann said in an email following the meeting. “Growth must pay for itself.”