Spokane County has increased its fees for land-use and development applications, citing a need to recover the cost of processing them. Some land-use experts, however, say the new fees, which in some cases amount to increases of thousands of dollars, are higher than state law allows under its "reasonable fee" requirements, and the Spokane Home Builders Association is asking the county to repeal the new fee schedule pending further review.
The new land-use fees went into effect April 1, and they will pay for the cost of reviewing land-use planning applications, holding public hearings, issuing public notices, and handling appeals, says Pam Knutsen, the county's building and planning administrative services manager. The fee schedule also has eliminated surcharges on building-permit applications that it had used to help offset the cost of handling land-use applications.
Under the new schedule, higher fees will be assessed on applications for land uses, including requests for preliminary and final subdivision plats, short plats, binding site plans, vacations, and zone changes, Knutsen says.
In one example under the new fee schedule, the base fee for a preliminary plat application, including a determination by a hearing examiner, is $3,754. That's more than double the $1,838 fee that was in effect prior to the increase.
Edie Streicher, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, contends that fees can be collected only to cover costs related directly to processing applications, inspections, reviewing plans, and preparing documents. State law prohibits the assessment of fees to cover overhead, such as lease payments and health insurance, she asserts.
"Things that are not related directly to costs may not be eligible for including in permit fees," she says. "If the county is inflating the cost per hour to include more than the effort spent on processing applications, it is imposing an illegal tax."
Of the association's request that the county repeal the new fee schedule until its legality can be determined, Streicher says, "There's not a lot of development going on right now. It's not like they are going to lose a lot."
Knutsen says that under the old schedule, planning fees had recouped only about a third of the cost of processing the applications.
The shortfall previously was recovered through the general fund and other revenue sources that are no longer available, she says. Since 1996, when the county planning and building departments merged, some planning charges were tacked onto building fees in order to spread them out, Knutsen says.
"We had a surcharge on all of our permits," she says.
As the county's building-permit volume declined over the last two years, however, the surcharges were insufficient to cover the costs of processing land-use fees, Knutsen says.
Nonetheless, Spokane land-use attorney Stacy Bjordahl says the fees still seem higher than can be justified.
Bjordahl asserts the fees are based on an hourly rate of $87 for planner time, which is more than $50 above the highest hourly rate the county pays individual planners. She says one of her clients has put off plans for a development because the application fee alone would be more than $35,000.
Knutsen says the elimination of surcharges on building-permit fees will offset the increase in land-use and development fees.
For instance, the land-use application fees for a five-lot short plat would total around $4,000, up from $2,600 prior to the fee increases. Under the new fee schedule, fees for five building permits on that same short plat would fall to about $4,700, down from $6,600 when surcharges were added to the building-permit fees. In such a case the developer actually would pay $500 less overall, Knutsen says. A short plat is a type of subdivision that has up to nine lots and generally is simpler to process than larger subdivisions.
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