Washington County officials are calling for more consistency and objectivity in the county's acceptance of mitigation payments from developers who want to build in overcrowded school districts.
With no official formula for the cost of each school seat, developers are left guessing how much to offer, and the county's approval process has been time-consuming and inconsistent, Planning Director Michael C. Thompson told the Washington County Commissioners during a work session Tuesday.
The county has accepted school mitigation payments ranging from $1,000 to $9,000 per lot, Thompson said.
"People call me (representing) developers that want to do development, and they say, 'What do I need to do for mitigation?'" Thompson said. "And at this point I say, 'Write up what you want, submit it, and we'll see what happens.'"
Mitigation payments are allowed under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance to make way for development that would otherwise be prohibited because of limited school, road or utility capacity.
The mitigation is paid on top of any excise tax and, in the case of school mitigation, is to be used within three years to create the necessary capacity through new schools or additions.
Developers proposing mitigation payments have often had to appear before the commissioners three or four times with revised proposals before the commissioners have been satisfied with the amount, Thompson said.
"There was one proposal, when we went and looked at it when all was said and done, (the amount accepted) was less than the original proposal offered to us a year and a half before that," he said.
The school system uses surveys to determine "pupil generation rates," or the average number of elementary, middle and high school students that different types of homes will generate. But the cost of accommodating each of those additional students has been controversial.
A consistent formula for the cost per seat would save the commissioners and the developers time and headaches, Thompson said.
Other issues to consider in setting a mitigation policy include at what stage in the process to require the payment, whether the payment should be earmarked for use only in the same area as the development, and whether to allow developers to give land instead of money, he said.
Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, a former Washington County Board of Education member, said she was opposed to accepting land as mitigation.
"Not to be mean-spirited toward any developer, because I know they're trying to just meet us halfway, but so often in any gift of land ... it's seldom the most desirable piece of land, and you complicate your construction costs," she said.
Thompson said that while many people want to see school mitigation payments earmarked to stay in the area around the development, that might not be the best use of the funds because it might take many years before that area has enough growth for a new school.
In the meantime, making improvements elsewhere and redistricting may be the best way to accommodate a few extra students, he said.
No expiration date
Another sticky issue is whether to count developments that were approved but never built when measuring how much school capacity is left, Thompson said.
"Without an expiration date on these agreements ... 10 years from now the same lot, if he still hasn't developed it, will still be counted against somebody," he said.
Callaham brought up subjectivity as another issue with the existing ordinance.
"If I'm standing there as sort of a novice, looking at the student capacity through the core, I might say, 'Oh my gosh, this is really overcrowded,'" Callaham said. "Mr. (Terry) Baker, who sees children every day, he might look at that same area and say, 'No, there's room over here for two more kids to pass through.'"
Callaham suggested that the county planning and school system staff members who have been most involved in the mitigation process put together some proposals for ways to make the policy more consistent and objective.
The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance was passed in 1990.
"That's five boards (ago), and we're still not happy with it?" Callaham said. "...To sit here and say that one of us is going to come up with this really brilliant idea that five other boards haven't thought of, is really — it's a lot."