Don't cut off conversation on planning costs

The concept is appealingly simple:

The city should charge fees for services to those who use them, unless “provision of the specific service in question provides a general public benefit.”

As reported elsewhere in this issue, a seven-person citizen committee has been tasked with applying that mandate to the question of fees charged to builders and developers.

To an outsider, this might seem to be a dry exercise in the arcane nuances of accountancy. But as anyone who has lived through a local electoral cycle can attest, it touches on the hottest button we have hereabouts: The question of whether builders pay too little, or get away with too much, dominates our political discourse.

The problem in applying the fee-for-benefit directive is that virtually every city-provided service has some component of “public” worth.

Plainly, builders benefit from enforcement of a code, because buyers gain confidence knowing that they are getting a safely constructed residence. But the community as a whole also benefits from quality construction. On a broader scale, the community benefits from good planning – of less obvious value to the individual builder.

If the beneficiary should pay, it’s far from clear how to apportion the costs of regulation. How should such costs be determined? Is it fair to charge builders with costs caused by appeals and litigation, even when the builder wins? Should protesting neighbors have to pay part of the costs?

And consider: There is already picking and choosing going on when the exercise is focused on building and planning – we don’t, for example, charge downtown merchants for the cost of parking enforcement, nor do we charge residents with the cost of repairing the street that provides access to their area.

If building and development costs are increased, will builders pay, or will buyers? What is the effect on property taxes on existing homes in the neighborhood? What effect will those costs have on overall affordability?

And what about the “quality of service” question? We hear “nightmare” stories from all sides – tales of variances being given too freely and environmental values disregarded, stories about delays and misinformation to permit applicants, and about uneven application of ordinances.

One thing does seems clear: These issues can’t be decided by mid-June, when the citizen committee is supposed to finish its work.

But they are worth exploring. Ultimately, decisions about fees will be made by the city council, and decisions about city operations will come from the mayor and the administrator. All have plenty on their plates, particularly if the council maintains its ambitious approach to the budget.

We think the citizen committee on fees can play a vital role. The group is well-informed and reasonably well-balanced, and seems motivated. So remove the time constraints and let this group conduct a rip-roaring discussion about our planning process. We’ll all gain.

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