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District touts new impact fee for parks

"Backers say they help make growth pay for itself. Critics say the cost is just passed along from developer to home-buyer, raising overall home prices.And the last time the city adopted one, to help fund local school construction in 1991, it made for some long and divisive hearings.Now the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District is crafting a proposal for an impact fee on new construction, to help the district keep pace with demands on park facilities that come with an ever-increasing island population.There's a lot of momentum in this direction, said Dave Shorett, park board commissioner. We think that the public strongly supports (impact fees).A tentative, still-informal proposal would add a $1,000 mitigation fee to the permit process for new single-family homes. The idea is now being discussed by park district and city officials, and would have to go through the city council for approval. Under the state's Growth Management Act, cities are allowed to establish up-front mitigation or impact fees on new residential construction, to offset the demands on services of new residents.The fee is paid during the permitting process when a home is built. Under state law, cities can levy such fees to fund public roadways; parks, open space and recreation areas; fire protection services; and schools.The only impact fee now in place on Bainbridge Island is a school impact fee, which is assessed at $3,090 on a new single-family home, and $800 per unit on multi-family construction such as apartments. In fact, Bainbridge Island was the first city in the state to enact such a fee, following on the heels of several Washington counties, and the issue proved to be highly divisive. The council agreed to the enact the fee only after a dispute with school district officials over fees that had previously been collected by the city of Winslow, as projects were reviewed under the State Environmental Policy Act.The fee has crept up a bit since it was enacted to keep pace with a complicated formula, under which the $3,090 is said to equal 30-33 percent of the cost of adding school capacity for a new student.The city has also looked at the possibility of adding a transportation impact fee, but a council committee concluded that current demands on road capacity did not exceed adequate levels of service.A survey conducted by the park district of 36 Puget Sound-area cities found that 20 now assess park impact fees. The fee on new single-family homes ranges from a low of $400 in Carnation, to a high of $3,147 in Issaquah. Average among the 16 cities charging a flat fee (some charged based on the assessed valuation of a new home, and others were unknown) was about $940.Shorett said on Bainbridge Island, new residents will overtax the park district's ability to keep up with capital needs.Look at Winslow Landing - that's 240 units, Shorett said, of a development proposed near the ferry terminal. That's an enormous impact, a lot of people, and it pays nothing.The park district now relies on two-year operations and maintenance levies to keep going, tucking in maintenance projects like the repaving of Battle Point Park access roads when it can. Attempts to establish a reserve fund for capital needs have been frustrated. The last levy specifically floated for capital improvements - a mid-1990s proposal that would have gone to soccer field restoration and several other projects - failed at the polls.There's a thin line between maintenance and major maintenance, Shorett said. We're just lucky we haven't had anything huge happen.But impact fees have numerous detractors, many of them in the construction community, including City Councilman and homebuilder Jim Llewellyn.Obviously, the parks would love to have revenues that they don't have to put to the voters, said Llewellyn, suggesting capital improvement levies are more appropriate.We pass almost everything that goes to the voters, he said. I don't know why the districts are afraid to go to the voters.Critics say impact fees add to the cost of new homes without adding to their value. That, they say, also affects neighboring properties, which can be assessed at a higher valuation because of the sudden presence of expensive new homes nearby.Because it would be enacted by the city council by ordinance, the council would have final say on the fee level and what revenues would be earmarked for. For example, the school impact fee is dedicated to adding classroom seats; none of the money can go to teacher salaries or miscellaneous school needs.Llewellyn suggested that a new fee should be tied to the city's forthcoming concurrency ordinance, which will require that facilities and services supporting new development already be in place when the impact of the development occurs. That ordinance is expected to go before the council next week.Also, he said, the council would take a look at the current levels of service established by the park district in its comprehensive plan. It might take into consideration recreation areas not under park district control - Fort Ward and Fay Bainbridge state parks, for example, or private operations like Bloedel Reserve that serve park-like functions - to see how islanders' needs are being met.That study would determine whether a new impact fee could be justified by growth, as required under the law.Our levels of service are already higher than most other jurisdictions, Llewellyn said. We're going to find that we already look pretty good next to other areas.Countered Shorett, We wouldn't be proposing it if we didn't feel there was a strong justification for it, pointing to funding problems that have stalled development of a a new Babe Ruth baseball facility on Sands Road.The fields would be built in advance of a public school with which it will share the property. But the projected cost of the ball facility has climbed, leaving the district scrambling for volunteer labor and equipment to complete the project.We're always trying to piece things together, and it isn't getting done, Shorett said. If we had impact fees, that ball field would be in the finishing stages right now."

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