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Builders argue in vain over fees

They brought neon green signs saying "Don't Send Jobs to Other Areas" and "HIGH IMPACT FEES COST US JOBS."

Builders, real estate agents, developers and others in the home building business filled more than 120 seats in the Lecanto Government Building on Thursday, lobbying the Citrus County Planning and Development Review Board to reject a proposal that would substantially raise impact fees.

Citrus Hills, the county's largest developer, and the Citrus County Builders Association both hired consultants to review _ and poke holes in _ the methods of the county's planning consultant, Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

The attorney representing the builders association, Inverness lawyer Clark Stillwell, sounded as if he was presenting opening arguments to a jury, telling planning commissioners that their decision could put builders out of work.

High fees, he said, could lead to people buying homes in Sumter or Levy counties instead of Citrus.

"You don't have to be an economist to know that if you raise the price of something by $7,000," he said, "the demand could go down."

Planning board members unanimously approved the fee hikes, as proposed, anyway. County commissioners will review them Feb. 22 before they make a final decision a month later.

Builders are charged impact fees, which defray the expense that occupants of their new buildings and homes put on county services such as libraries, roads, schools and public buildings. Each of those four categories is assigned a fee, and they are the fees facing increases to make sure they keep up with modern costs.

The four fees are part of eight that altogether cost home builders a total of $3,131 per new home. If the four increases are passed by county commissioners, the total impact fee cost will climb to more than $7,000 per average home.

About 3,000 homes were built in the county last year.

Arguments against raising the fees were numerous.

+ Vacant lots are selling at monstrous profits in this bullish market, yet owners are not paying property taxes that truly reflect the value of their land. That's not fair, said George Rusaw, a prominent home builder, because those taxes, like impact fees, pay for county services.

+ New home costs are already too high. Impact fees will just be passed on to new homeowners, who might look elsewhere for a home. "Construction workers will be put out of work and likely end up on the welfare rolls," said Arbor Lakes developer Tom Chancey. "Their dream of owning a home will suffer."

+ The fees will have a horrific effect on housing for the poor, several low-income builders said. "These people are going to have to leave Citrus County and find housing in other areas," Norm Peterson, president of Habitat for Humanity of Citrus County, said.

+ Companies and commercial builders, who face increases as high as 2,040 percent, will not move to Citrus. "Three hundred percent, 400 percent, 2,000 percent will kill their expansion plans," Linda Daly, a builders association official, said. "We need them and the services they provide."

Arguments for the increases were few but equally passionate.

+ Impact fees have been raised twice before, and builders have made the same noise. Yet, the housing market has boomed. "Not one single word of this rhetoric has ever come to pass," Jim Bitter, a resident and environment advocate, said.

+ Home buyers are the ones creating the need for new services, so they should pay for them. "The home buyer is the one creating the impact _ not us," said Morris Harvey, a government watchdog.

The one common ground both sides found was that they have grown tired debating these issues every few years. Instead of often reviewing impact fees, the fees should rise annually so this "sticker shock" can be avoided, Stillwell said.

One of the builders' arguments was that Tindale-Oliver used the wrong methods to come up with the proposed increases, which are based on scientific studies of growth's impact.

Builders had been given months to study these methods and the report, but some were asking for more time. Supporters of impact fees saw this as a delay tactic, while Bob Wallace of Tindale-Oliver grew defensive.

He said he has done similar studies for 50 Florida governments and countless others _ none of which have ever been challenged. By law, impact fees cannot make profits for local governments.

"I will stand behind the work we've done," he said. "If we have to go to court to defend the work I've done, I will do it."

Planning board members, meanwhile, strongly questioned the builders for not offering their own dollar figures on where the impact fees should be set _ despite having two high-priced consultants review the issue. Eventually, one builder-paid consultant offered his recommendation, which was about half of what the county's consultant proposed.

After about six hours of debate, planning board members had heard enough.

"Mr. Chairman, I think we can discuss this until noon tomorrow," Planning Commissioner David Langer said. "I think we should send this on to the Board of County Commissioners."

The planning board unanimously passed the county consultant's recommendation. They also recommended a provision that would lessen fees for affordable housing. Another recommendation was that the fees rise annually, much like something that accounts for inflation. The last asked that the property appraiser review vacant land tax assessments, which many said were too low.

After the long meeting, builders who had clapped for many who spoke on their behalf politely applauded the planning board because the members listened to all the arguments. But that didn't mean they agreed with what they did.

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com.

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