As St. Johns County continues to grapple with the effects of its persistent growth, the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted 4-1 to adopt a new impact fee schedule last Tuesday, April 3. To be rolled out in two phases, the new fee schedule will increase impact fees across the board, but will provide a significant subsidy for non-residential structures with an aim of attracting commercial development.
In St. Johns County, impact fees – which are one-time fees imposed on new developments to account for the costs of providing them with additional public services – are collected in six categories: roads, fire and rescue, law enforcement, parks and recreation, public buildings and schools. Last August, the BCC met with the St. Johns County School District to discuss a report prepared by consultant James Nicholas regarding impact fees—a report that would ultimately be the basis for the new fee schedule.
“St. Johns County has been and is expected to continue experiencing growth,” Nicholas wrote in his report. “If St. Johns County is to remain a desirable place to work and live, the needs of growth must be attended to. Such attendance means that new roads, parks, schools, public buildings, fire stations and the host of needs that a growing community requires must be planned, designed and built. But, the prerequisite of providing such facilities is the ability to pay the cost of such improvements.”
To offset those rising costs, Nicholas made recommendations for adjustments to the county’s current impact fee schedule. In hopes of creating a smoother transition into those adjustments, the final decision of the BCC was to implement Nicholas’ recommendations gradually in two phases. The first phase will impose non-school impact fees at 75 percent of the maximum amount specified by Nicholas’ study, with an additional 15 percent reduction for non-residential impact fees to be subsidized by the county. Phase two of the implementation process will then raise non-school impact fees to the maximum amount, though the non-residential impact fees will retain the initial 40 percent reduction, again to be subsidized by the county. School impact fees will be imposed at 100 percent throughout both phases of the process, and the subsidies for non-residential impact fees will be sourced from applicable non-ad valorem funds in the general fund.
In addition to the fee adjustments, beginning July 2, the structure according to which residential impact fees are imposed will also undergo significant changes. Currently, residential impact fees are imposed in two tiers: units up to 1,800 square feet in size and units that are more than 1,800 square feet. When the first phase of the new fee schedule takes effect, however, the county will begin categorizing residential developments according to the following seven tiers: units up to 800 square feet; units 801 to 1,250 square feet; units 1,251 to 1,800 square feet; units 1,801 to 2,500 square feet; units 2,501 to 3,750 square feet; units 3,751 to 5,000 square feet; and units more than 5,000 square feet. Including the adjustments to school impact fees, most residential developments will see an increase in impact fees, with the changes ranging from 15 to 79.7 percent. Only those developments in the “up to 800 square feet” category will see a reduction in fees by about 11.9 percent.
Moved by fears that raising impact fees too high might deter commercial developers from moving into the county, the commissioners were in general agreement regarding the need to subsidize the fees for non-residential developments. There was dissention, however, regarding the decision to phase in the new fees, given that an alternative, all-at-once approach could yield more revenue for the county.
“My recommendation would be to move forward and do it all at one time and just pass it without phasing in the process, because I don’t think it’s fair to the residents that live in St. Johns County that we’re going to lose close to $4 million in impact fees that we won’t be able to make up,” said Commissioner Paul Waldron, the lone dissenting vote.
Members of the community also voiced concerns from both sides of the issue, with some contending that the fees weren’t high enough, and others maintaining the opposite—that the increase would deter families from moving into the county.
“This is going to hurt families in St. Johns County,” said Jessie Spradley, governmental affairs director for the Northeast Florida Builders Association. “As we move forward, this is not a happy day. This is going to be painful for those folks who are going to now see their house increase between $2,000 and $10,000, and that’s not counting the interest that’s going to be applied to this tax they’re going to be paying. As we move forward from this moment, please help us identify ways to back off that amount through reduced regulations, reduced bureaucracy.”
The first phase of the implementation process for the newly adopted impact fee schedule will take effect July 2, with the changes of the second phase scheduled to go into full effect Jan. 1, 2019.