Unfettered Zoning Fee Increases Forever?

 By. Neil Williamson, President

Albemarle County has scheduled their zoning fee increase public hearing  to allow the current lame duck Board of Supervisors vote on the proposal on December 2, 2009.  The Board has already seen the fee increases as they included the numbers in their resolution of intent several months ago.

Despite our research and our direct testimony at the Planning Commission, the Free Enterprise Forum still has fundamental issues with both the timing and the concept of fixing the process by fixing the fees (with an automatic escalator).  We fear this puts too much emphasis on the fee increase side of the equation and provides no mechanism nor incentive for achieving departmental efficiency.  In addition, we have called for the implementation of these fees to be postponed until at least January 1, 2011.

Recent media accounts support our position.

In a November 13th editorial, The Daily Progress highlighted potential cuts to help alleviate the largest cost component to the fees, salaries:

Meanwhile, raising revenue addresses just one side of the equation. The other must be considered: Reducing county costs so that there is less reason to “need” fee hikes.

This can be done in two ways.

Some critics claim that the planning and development department is overstaffed, especially now that building permit requests have fallen due to the economic downturn. We know that the county has reduced some staffing levels through attrition and reassignment. Although we are not prepared at this time to say uncategorically that this department or any other needs to be trimmed still further, we do think the county should further consider this cost-cutting technique.

The county might be able to cut staff if it made its system less cumbersome. Rezoning and building procedures are so protracted and unpredictable that they add unnecessary burdens to the approval process. Of course, procedures should continue to safeguard the environment and the taxpayer, but streamlining the system would benefit everyone in time and money saved.

In a recent Letter to the Editor of The Daily Progress, Cecil Witt raised a number of concerns including the staffing levels of county inspections:

In the first half of 2002, there were 855 single-family home permits issued, with a staff of 15 employees. In the first half of ’08, there were 266 SFH permits issued, still with a staff of 15. In the first half of ’09 there were 155 SFH permits issued, still again with 15 employees on payroll. These numbers are taken from reports from the county.

Most interestingly, the City of Richmond raised fees in 2007 in order to produce an improvement in service.  A recent City audit (53 page PDF) found the cost justification faulty and questioned any resulting improvement in service.  Will Jones of The Richmond Times Dispatch has the story.

A 15.5 percent increase in Richmond’s construction permit fees may have been unnecessary, and it has failed to produce the promised improvements in inspection services, according to the city auditor. . .

The report is recommending that administration officials review the city’s costs to issue permits and conduct inspections, and to adjust its fees accordingly.

Albemarle County’s proposed zoning fees have an automatic escalator based on merit pay increases.  Understandably, labor is the largest component of the cost.  What if the fees also included a quadrennial outside audit of the fee schedule? 

Such an audit would clearly fall under the best practices Albemarle has touted in the past.  An audit, if done correctly, might expose the huge waste that is mandated not by code but by over zealous Albemarle County planning procedures.

The proposed fees (as advertised in this morning’s paper) include:

Selected Proposed Zoning Fee Increases      
Albemarle      
  Current Proposed %
  Fee Fee Increase
       
Zoning Text Amendment $ 840 $ 1,000 19%
       
Zoning Map Amendments      
Planned Development < 50 acres $ 1,200 $ 2,500 108%
Planned Development > 50 acres $ 1,570 $ 3,500 123%
All other amendments < 50 acres $ 1,020 $ 1,250 23%
All other amendments > 50 acres $ 1,570 $ 1,750 11%
Deferral of scheduled public hearing at applicant request $ 35 $ 180 414%
       
Special Use Permits      
Rural Area Division $ 1,240 $ 2,000 61%
Home Occupation- Class A $ 13 $ 25 92%
Home Occupation- Class B $ 440 $ 500 14%
Each additional resubmittal after 1st resubmittal n/a $ 1,000  
       
Site Plans      
Final Site Plan – Administrative Review $ 410 $ 1,200 193%
Final Site Plan Planning Commission Review $ 1,130 $ 1,800 59%
       
Matters considered by Board of Zoning Appeals      
Variances $ 120 $ 500 317%
Appeals $ 120 $ 240 100%
       
Matters considered by Architectural Review Board      
Site Plan n/a $ 1,000 n/a
Building Permit per ARB review n/a $ 590 n/a
       
Matters Considered by Zoning Administrator or others      
Official determination regarding compliance $ 75 $ 185 147%
Official determination regarding development rights $ 40 $ 100 150%
All other official determinations $ 75 $ 100 33%

———————————————————————-

20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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