County continues to wrestle with impact fees 

Tensions between County Council, municipalities simmer as school fees repealed; 3rd vote on broader resolution delayed 

By Tony Kukulich 

Before once again considering the controversial repeal of all county impact fees during Monday night’s Beaufort County Council meeting, the council disentangled school impact fees from the broader impact fee resolution, a move that gave them the flexibility to address the matters individually. 

It was a move that appeared to have paid off for the council. 

By a vote of 9 to 2, the council approved the repeal of school impact fees collected in unincorporated areas of the county south of the Broad River, and to refund each $9,534 fee collected since the fee was initiated approximately one year ago. 

“In 2020, the School District and County commissioned a school impact fee study,” said County Administrator Eric Greenway. “The county staff initially supported implementing that study council to adopt the school impact fee last summer when the Town of Hardeeville would consider annexing portions of the county. If the fees were in place and the annexations were successful, the county would still be able to collect them. However, the annexations did not occur, the municipalities, including the Town of Bluffton, disagreed with the structure and the school board seemed not to take a position. For these reasons, the time has come now for the county to stop collecting the fee.” 

The Beaufort County School District was not represented at Monday’s meeting. While funding for the district’s capital expansion projects like new schools or school renovations are typically funded by voter-approved bond initiatives, Candace Bruder, the district’s director of communications, said that the Board of Education originally voted unanimously to approve the school impact fee. 

“The district’s needs are real,” Bruder said. “The growth in southern Beaufort County is real. These challenges don’t go away just because the county decided to repeal these much needed impact fees. At the end of the day, these needs have to be addressed. The decision comes down to either developers paying a portion or the taxpayers taking on the full cost.”

In early April, a lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by The Island News, was filed against the county by Pulte Home Company, LLC that challenged the validity of the school impact fees. While the county has not cited the lawsuit as motivation for its decision to repeal the school impact fee, the action could influence the disposition of the suit.

“I’m not an attorney, so I can’t really tell you that,” Greenway said Monday night. “If they’re going to get their money back in a refund, then there would really be no damages that anybody has incurred as a result of paying the impact fees. I don’t see that there would be much of a case at that point.”

The council took a different approach on the resolution regarding the repeal of impact fees collected for the benefit of roads, parks and recreation, libraries and fire service. On that matter, the council voted to delay the third and final reading of a resolution to repeal all other impact fees until their June 13 meeting. The delay will give the county and the municipalities more time to come to agreement on the matter of impact fees.

“I voted against us even thinking about repealing the impact fees,” said District 9 Council member Mark Lawson. “I realized it was a knee-jerk reaction. Now we are, for lack of a better term, trying to strong arm the municipalities. … I think that we are going down a slippery slope whenever we sit here and put timelines on things that need to be done.”

Impact fees are a means to raise revenue needed to offset the demand that development places on county and municipal resources. For example, a new neighborhood with 300 homes increases traffic on local roads; increases the strain on water and sewer systems; increases the number of calls for fire and police service and puts more children in the schools. Fees are calculated to approximately offset the cost of providing those services to each new home. They allow the government to assess those costs specifically on those benefiting from development rather than assessing increased costs on every taxpayer in the county.

The current dust up over the fees started to come to a head when District 5 Council member Brian Flewelling introduced a resolution to repeal school impact fees during the March 28 council meeting. For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, District 7 Council member Logan Cunningham amended the resolution to include all impact fees. Cunningham declined to comment on his motivations for the amendment. Nevertheless, the amendment stuck and the resolution moved forward.

The resolution did not contemplate how the county would replace that revenue in its coffers.

“If we don’t collect impact fees, it’s a simple matter,” said Vice Chair Paul Sommerville. “It goes right back on the taxpayers.”

Following that initial resolution, the council took pains to place blame on the county’s municipalities which, in the county’s argument, forced the hand of the council. Residents of the incorporated towns and cities are not paying the impact fees that are assessed on residents of the unincorporated parts of the county. In the county’s argument, an inequity exists between residents of the municipalities and residents of the county.

“This lack of participation and cooperation by Hilton Head, Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal has led Beaufort County Council to consider eliminating all existing impact fees and to abandon its efforts to adopt school and EMS impact fees,” wrote County Council Chair Joe Passiment in a statement released to the media earlier this month. “It has forced the county to make a tough decision.”

City of Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray took issue with the county’s position, stating that the county has been slow to respond to the city’s inquiries and concerns related to impact fees.

“It is our opinion that the county is holding up the passage of impact fees, not the City of Beaufort,” Murray told The Island News.

Greenway, Passiment and Sommerville met with the mayors and town managers this past Thursday to try to reach agreement on the issue. Despite a request by Murray to open the meeting to the public, the county declined.

While some council members suggested that recent progress has been made, it remains to be seen if an agreement between the county and municipalities will be reached in time for the June 13 council meeting. One thing that is clear is that tensions between the two sides remain.

“The first thing I want to say about that meeting is that there was a blistering, withering attack leveled at our administrator,” Sommerville said. “I think it was extremely inappropriate.”

Sommerville went on to suggest that if the municipalities continue to balk at assessing impact fees, they can assume responsibility for the services the county currently provides.

In an email to The Island News, Murray suggested that had the meeting been made available to the public, county residents could reach their own conclusions about the mayors’ treatment of Greenway.

“It’s concerning that Vice Chairman Sommerville wants to focus on personality instead of impact fee policy,” Murray added. “His comments and saber rattling regarding repeal of impact fees should be of concern to all Beaufort County taxpayers.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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