Kootenai County and the four local highway districts are working together to explore whether impact fees would help the area’s unprecedented growth pay for itself.
The idea of impact fees – charges assessed on residential and commercial building permits – is echoing across the county.
Impact fees have become a hot topic in the two Kootenai County commission races in the May 23 primary election and within the East Side Highway District, which is asking voters this month to approve a $400,000 property tax increase so it can keep up with routine road repairs such as paving.
The impact fee mantra was recently repeated at a public hearing on whether to amend the county’s growth map to allow large housing and golf developments in two of the county’s most rural areas.
Last month during a county commission candidate forum at the Mica Flats Grange, a resident noted that not a dollar is collected by the county in impact fees.
“The growth I’m seeing is ridiculous,” said Kidd Island Bay resident Chad Solsvik. “What are you going to do? Let sprawl continue?”
All the county commission candidates agreed that impact fees need a study at the least. Yet the sitting county commissioners up for re-election – Chairman Gus Johnson and Katie Brodie – stressed to the crowd that impact fees aren’t the cure-all because the county will still have to contribute tax dollars to keeping up with growth.
“It’s a great sound bite,” Brodie said.
No Idaho county charges impact fees, largely because the current state law is characterized by elected officials as confusing and burdensome. The Idaho Legislature recently passed a bill by Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, to make it easier for counties to set up impact fees.
Many Idaho cities, including Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Hayden and Rathdrum, do assess the fees.
Local highway districts by law are unable to collect impact fees because, unlike counties and cities, they don’t have authority to make laws.
That’s why East Side, Lakes, Worley and Post Falls highway districts want to hash out an agreement with the county that would let them share the collection of impact fees. That means signing an agreement and conducting a study, costing as much as $150,000, to determine how much new development is affecting the county’s infrastructure. It would sort out how much revenue the fee system should generate and show specifically how the county could spend the money.
It’s possible the study would show that it’s unfeasible for the county and highway districts to execute impact fees.
“One thing people are harping on is impact fees, impact fees,” said Dick Edinger, chairman of the East Side Highway District. “It’s going to be a slow, slow process I’m afraid. And it might not work out.”
Yet he said it’s worth a try because the county and highway districts need all the tools possible to make sure roads, jails, parks and other services keep up with the number of homes popping up seemingly overnight in most areas of the county.
“Good for them,” said Dan Chadwick of the Idaho Association of Counties, when he heard Kootenai County’s plan to work with the highway district. “I think that’s really smart planning. Also it will distribute the (cost) burden better.”
The idea wasn’t as popular in 2004 during the last county commission race when candidate Mike Piper, who oversaw several conservation watchdog groups, brought up impact fees in nearly every conversation. His message never resonated and he was defeated by Brodie, who unseated incumbent Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker.
Two years later, and with hundreds of new homes on the landscape, talk of impact fees is everywhere.
The highway district chairmen want to know if such fees would help them better keep up with the need for roads. Currently, districts can ask developers to do a traffic study. The county commission can then make traffic improvements a condition of approval for the new development.
James Mangan, of the Worley Highway District, said it’s worked well with developers of large projects, such as Black Rock, an exclusive golf community near Rockford Bay.
“They ponied up quite a bit of money to improve adjacent roads,” Mangan said. “We do have some leverage there. But the big question is, are we using the best approach?”
Post Falls Highway District Chairman Lynn Humphries isn’t as comfortable working with the county. Instead, he wants the state highway districts association to ask the Idaho attorney general for an opinion on whether highway districts already have the ability to charge impact fees. If the AG’s office says no, Humphries wants to lobby the Legislature to change the law and give the districts law-making authority similar to counties and cities.
Yet Humphries acknowledges that the highway districts need some way to keep pace with the cost of growth. There’s just varying opinions on how to get there.
“Anyone who tells you impact fees are the total solution to all the problems, they’ve been smoking wacky tobaccy,” Humphries said. “Once we know where we stand, we’ll take a serious hard look.”