It’s no secret that the Pierce County parks system has been underfunded for years. Thanks to a hard-won political compromise, new funding — for much-needed new parks and park and trail expansion — is finally at hand.
Despite rapid population growth in the past 19 years, especially in the unincorporated areas of South Hill and Spanaway, the county’s budget for parks and trails has lagged.
As a result, parking lots regularly overflow at the county’s most popular parks and trailheads on sunny summer weekends. Properties the county has already acquired for potential new parks sit undeveloped. Meanwhile, the population in unincorporated parts of Pierce County is expected to grow 15 percent by 2030.
For decades Pierce County has failed to fully utilize an important funding source for parks and recreational facilities: impact fees on new home construction.
The county’s parks current fee of $385 is the lowest among the region’s urban counties. The cities of Puyallup, University Place and Bonney Lake already collect park impact fees ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.
The county has in effect left $16 million of potential funding for parks on the table — potential fees that could have built new parks and trails in suburban communities.
Last year the parks department proposed an updated fee similar to those in surrounding cities. The County Council responded by asking the department to organize a working group of builders, Realtors and park advocates to tackle the issue. The homebuilders pressed to ensure that plans for new park facilities would match the needs of new-home buyers in fast-growing areas.
Increasing the parks impact fee is not an easy vote for the council. Raising taxes or any fees that increase the cost of new housing is a hard sell. Given the county’s sad history with impact fees — which are based on the principle that new growth should help pay for the new infrastructure it requires — the result could have been deadlock and another inadequately low fee.
The working group met for more than 11 weeks and hammered out a consensus proposal. In the end, the group agreed on imposing a fee of $2,552, to be phased in by January 2018.
Council members are expected to approve. The new fee will generate more than $55 million for park and trail projects over the next 15 years. The highlights:
▪ About $16 million to add trails, play areas and parking lots on undeveloped park properties near Spanaway and Bonney Lake, including $6.5 million for the proposed Cross Park near Frederickson.
▪ More than $20 million for new paved recreational trails, including one connecting Tacoma to the Foothills Trail near McMillin and Orting.
▪ More than $16 million for existing parks at Lake Tapps, Sprinker and South Hill to upgrade playing fields for soccer, basketball and baseball teams where crowding now makes it hard for teams to find fields for their events.
▪ About $3 million for the PenMet and KeyPen Park districts on the west side of the Narrows.
On Oct 3, the council’s Community Development Committee will hold a hearing on the fee proposal.
In this age of polarized politics, it is rare to see a contentious fee proposal evolve into a consensus agreement. Throughout the study process, the stakeholders focused on seeking an approach that could bring people together. Without opposition, the council will find it easier to raise the fee.
The County Council deserves credit for seeking a consensus solution. When passed, this impact fee will ensure that current residents and new home buyers find more local trails and parks for their kids, more facilities for sports teams and an improved trail system connecting adjacent towns.
Kirk Kirkland represented ForeverGreen Trails on the county Parks Impact Fee Working Group. David Seago is a board member of the Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition.