Lee commissioners consider reducing impact fees

— Lee County will move forward with plans to reduce some fees used to pay for roads, commissioners agreed at Monday’s monthly Management and Planning meeting.

Businesses can face thousands of dollars in impact fees when building new offices or moving into existing ones.

In the recession’s aftermath, several cities and counties, including Collier, temporarily waived those fees to encourage businesses to grow.

“It puts us at a bit of a competitive disadvantage,” said Mary Gibbs, community development director.

When Collier County waived its fees, 40 businesses in the first year saved more than $1 million, which meant $1 million less for the county.

Lee could see similar impacts, Gibbs said.

Impact fees pay for the construction of roads, parks, schools and other services needed when people flock to an area.

Gibbs will draft a resolution before the year’s end that will outline two temporary changes to how impact fees are applied.

First, the county would for two years waive what’s known as a change-of-use fee. For example, impact fees on a 1,000-square-foot general office are about $7,000. A medical office of the same size is about $24,000. A doctor looking to move into the general office space would be charged an additional $17,000.

Under proposed changes, the doctor wouldn’t have to pay that fee.

The second change would temporarily include medical offices in the category with general office space, reducing the cost for new doctors offices.

With these two changes, Gibbs said, the county could address its vacancy problem as well as the source of many business community complaints.

About 25 percent of Lee County’s commercial property is empty.

Four commissioners said they supported the ideas. Commissioner Brian Bigelow was absent.

“We’re coming in on the tail end of these,” said Commissioner John Manning. ... “I think it’s time for us to act and act decisively.”

He also said he supported cutting all impact fees by 25 percent and collecting the fees later in the process, such as at the time the occupancy certificates are granted.

A 25 percent across-the-board reduction, however, could incentivise builders to construct office space that isn’t needed now, Commission Chairwoman Tammy Hall cautioned.

Commissioner Frank Mann said he supported Gibbs recommendations, but he expressed concern about who would then pay for the infrastructure needed when new businesses began operating.

“It doesn’t mean the cost is going away that we use those fees for,” Mann said. “The parks, the roads, the schools are still going to be needed.”

He said the taxpayers will be the ones footing the bill instead of those responsible for the additional impact on government services.

Though all four commissioners present were in favor of the two changes Gibbs recommended, one commissioner was concerned about a possible down-side.

Ray Judah asked what would happen if builders who have already paid those fees requested refunds.

Gibbs acknowledged that could happen, but as Collier County recently decided, Lee officials could limit refunds to those already in the process.

Other suggestions included updating the county’s impact fee study to determine if the rates could be lowered. Though commissioners speculated that they believed the fees would drop, Gibbs said there’s always a chance that they could go up as well.

A resolution, with one public hearing, could be brought back to the board in December.

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