Let’s hear it for the Pierce County Council for breaking ground on some real compromise this month. The new park impact fee it approved will put an estimated $51 million into the county’s park and trail system over the next 15 years.
For a government body with a divided leadership, one so contentious at times it makes Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington look like old drinking buddies, this is a huge bipartisan victory.
We suspect someone’s been watching “Dr. Phil” because the seven-member council followed the first two rules of conflict resolution: 1) they focused on a shared interest, which in this case is Pierce County growth, and 2) they sought counsel from a third party.
An advisory committee that met for a year was itself an unlikely alliance of parks staff, environmental organizations, businesses, home builders and real estate interests.
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Thanks to this third-party collaboration, a committee that dared utter the words “park impact fees” without fear of chasing future developers away, parks finally have a chance to keep up with population growth.
Pierce has absorbed about 120,000 more people since 2000. Today, it has more than triple the population of Kitsap County but only one fourth the useable park space per thousand residents.
The committee rightly pointed out how the county’s park system lags far behind its neighbors. In the end, the group decided to raise the current $385 impact fee to $1,107 in May, when it will start being phased in, and then to the full fee level of $2,552 in 2018.
That will be nearly seven times the size of today’s fee, but it’s hardly outrageous. It still only puts Pierce County in the middle of the pack compared with local cities.
Builders of new homes and apartments will have to dig deeper to pay for new park and trail construction. The revenue won’t go solely to county park operations; some will be spread among independent park districts, which should help ensure a broad reach and no bureaucratic kingdom building.
For years the Building Industry Association of Washington, a lobbying group that represents home builders and remodelers, fought against higher impact fees. The BIAW used the argument that raising fees would stifle growth by driving up the cost of housing and making upward mobility unaffordable for many families.
When other Puget Sound-area governments were charging as much as $5,000 for impact fees, Pierce County kept its stagnant — as in, they haven’t changed much since 1997 when Hootie and the Blowfish were at the top of the charts.
Land was never an issue here. What county officials lacked was the other kind of green, the kind that funds new parks, creates new trails and improves and expands existing parks.
Raising property taxes was not an option; the county would bump up against statewide limits on yearly tax increases. The alternative would have been to cut other services such as road maintenance.
Every great city has at least one great park, and every great county should have several. Even the BIAW finally came around to this truism. (Regrettably, Republican Jim McCune of Graham was the only one who didn’t come around on the County Council.)
Developers would do well for themselves and their customers to ensure new subdivision residents have more public space options. Buyers today aren’t just looking for granite countertops and an extra room for grandma; they’re looking for nearby walking trails and a place to throw a football.
It was an uphill climb to get the BIAW and the County Council to realize parks aren’t just recreational, they also provide a big economic benefit. With the new impact fees in place, everybody wins, and the council notches arguably its most enduring victory of 2016.