Pierce County considers big hike to development fee to pay for parks

Stan Cross, center, and friends would like this county-owned property in Frederickson, the former Mayflower Dairy, to be developed for a park. It would be named Stan & Joan Cross Park, as it was their property prior to its sale to the county.
Stan Cross, center, and friends would like this county-owned property in Frederickson, the former Mayflower Dairy, to be developed for a park. It would be named Stan & Joan Cross Park, as it was their property prior to its sale to the county. phaley@thenewstribune.com

For about 13 years, Joan and Stan Cross and members of the Frederickson community have lobbied for a park to serve residents of the fast-growing residential area in south central Pierce County.

The Crosses sold their 64-acre home and farm site to the county in 2003, but the county has done almost nothing other than to draw up preliminary plans about how to make the former dairy farm and cattle ranch into a civic asset.

It wasn’t that the county didn’t want to improve the Cross farm and an adjacent site; rather, it had no money to build the parking lots, ball fields, trails and shelters needed to turn the site into a full-fledged park, said Tony Tipton, the county’s parks director.

Stan and Joan Cross Park isn’t the only site the county has had no funds to develop in unincorporated Pierce County. It has acquired dozens of acres for park and trail expansion, but has been able to do little to improve that raw land.

Figures from a study commissioned by the Parks Department show Pierce County has the smallest number of acres of parkland per resident among other major urban counties in Washington.

The county park system includes 5,101 acres of parks and trails. That’s 6.2 acres per 1,000 residents. Neighboring Thurston County has 10.6 acres of parks per 1,000 residents.

King County’s parkland amounts to 26,000 acres, 12.9 acres per 1,000 residents. Snohomish County’s figure is even higher, 13.5 acres per 1,000 residents. Spokane County’s total is 12,000 acres, 24.8 acres per thousand, nearly four times the Pierce County figure.

The key to Pierce County’s poor comparative showing, county officials say, is the relative lack of money to create parks and trails.

Much of the money used for parks in other cities and counties comes from park impact fees, charges made to builders when they sell new houses in the county.

Pierce County is at the bottom of the list of Puget Sound-area counties and cities in the amount of park impact fees per dwelling it levies to finance new parks and trails and to improve existing parks.

The county charges $385 per residential unit as a park impact fee. That amount, adjusted in small increments in the early 2000s, remains close to the original $250 fee the county imposed in 1997.

Park impact fees charged by other Puget Sound area governments range from $5,334 in Olympia to $414 in Sumner. Bonney Lake charges $2,974. University Place levies a $3,644 fee. Gig Harbor charges builders $1,500.

Pierce County’s status at the bottom of the list could soon change if the County Council approves a proposed increase to $2,552 per dwelling. That figure was the result of a working group’s deliberations over the last several months.

The committee included members representing community groups, environmental organizations, real estate businesses and homebuilders.

Based on projections of new home sales over the next 15 years, the impact fee would raise about $57.4 million to fund new park and trail construction.

According to the proposal, 30 percent of that money would develop new parks, 38 percent would create trails, and 32 percent would improve and expand existing parks.

“Trails have become a high priority for residents in the last few years,” said Kimberly Freeman, superintendent of parks resource management who staffed the impact fees study, in explaining why trail construction will get the largest share of the funds.

The County Council expects to take up the fees in October or November.

So far, though the increase would be substantial, no organized opposition to the proposal has emerged.

One task force member said the builders initially peppered the park administration and its consultants with questions about the fee, how it would be spent and the justification for the dramatic increase.

The Master Builders Association of Pierce County then proposed doubling the $385 fee, but the committee said that would be insufficient to fund the county’s park needs.

The builders thus far have taken no formal stance on the $2,552 impact fee, said Jeremiah La Franca, the builders association governmental affairs director. He was a member of the advisory committee that studied the parks situation and recommended the fee increase to the council.

Scott Jones, vice president for Newland Communities, the developer of Tehaleh, said the company is still studying the proposed fee increase.

The proposal is supported by the Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors and by Derek Young, chairman of the council’s Community Development Committee.

Young said the impact fee approach is the only legally and politically practical way to generate enough money to start dealing with the county’s relative lack of park facilities.

The county couldn’t raise property taxes because the increase would run into statewide limits on yearly tax increases. The county needs the money the tax generates to pay for additional law enforcement for growing areas of the county.

The other alternative is to cut county services and shift the savings to the park system, Young said, but that approach is not practical because county residents already are lobbying for more and better roads and other county services.

The impact fee would affect only new-home buyers and builders, not the general populace.

Even with a large increase, the proposed impact fee would put the county in the middle of surrounding towns and counties ranked by the size of their impact fees.

While no formal opposition has emerged at committee hearings where the fee has been discussed, county staff members say they’ve heard critical comments from citizens at forums in more rural areas of the county.

“They’ve told us we should sell the land we already own and rebate that money to taxpayers,” said one county staff member.

The environmental community has emerged as a significant backer of the fee increase.

Kirk Kirkland, director of Forever Green, a local trails group, told the County Council that more trails are needed for recreation and healthful exercise for residents. His group supports the fee proposal.

The advisory committee has proposed a phased increase over the next year to buffer the shock of the increase and to allow smaller builders to get their new homes under construction before the full fee is imposed.

Young said he favors imposing the hike in one step because the county already has waited more than a decade to increase the fee in step with other communities.

“We’re already way behind,” the councilman said. “No need to wait any longer.”

County staff members say they expect the final vote on the impact fees likely will come in November, after the election. That timing, they say, could increase the odds of the proposal passing. Four of the seven council positions are up for election this fall.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

Among the Pierce County projects that impact fees could finance are:

▪  Buckley-Bonney Lake Park. This 80-acre park is just north of two of the county’s largest developments, the 4,700-acre Tehaleh community and the 465-acre Plateau 465 project. Together, the two developments could house nearly 30,000 residents.

▪ Cross Park. The fees would finance construction of a play area, restrooms, parking lot and a trailhead at the Frederickson park.

▪ Orangegate Park. The fee income would pay for walking trails, a play area, restrooms and a trailhead for the Cross-County Trail

▪ Cross County Commuter Connector Trail. The 5.5-mile trail would provide a mid-county path between urban centers.

▪ Foothills Trail Connection. The trail would connect three existing trails, the Foothills Trail through Orting and Buckley, Puyallup’s Riverwalk Trail and the Sumner Trail.

▪ South Hill Community Network Trail, which would connect parks, schools and trails in South Hill.

▪ Lake Tapps Park. The fees would help pay for enlarging the parking lot, improving restrooms, a waterfront promenade and new trails.

▪ Sprinker Recreation Center. Develop new multipurpose softball-soccer field, spray park, two basketball courts, playground, walking trails and picnic areas.

Several other projects would be funded by the fees, and money would be allocated to the Gig Harbor Peninsula’s two park districts for improvements there.