Board voices doubts on huge fee hike

Levy would fund road improvements

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Selectboard reacted skeptically to a proposed 900 percent increase for a fee that funds transportation improvements in Williston.

Town Planner Lee Nellis briefed the board at its Nov. 5 session on the need for a steep increase in the transportation impact fee. Developers pay the levy when they receive building permits.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said the fee, now $300 per trip end, would have to be increased to $2,824 per trip end to fund transportation improvements over the next 10 years.

Trips ends are the number of vehicles coming and going from a home or business during the afternoon rush hour.

Selectboard members wondered if the fee would put home prices out of reach and create hardships for small business. The town also levies education and recreation impact fees totaling more than $10,000 for a single-family home and much more for a commercial building.

The existing fee, which has not been increased in many years, is not nearly large enough to pay for infrastructure needs created by new development, Nellis said. That means existing property taxpayers must foot the bill for traffic problems they did not cause.

“So we have a system now, because fees are too low, that’s really inequitable,” he said.

Some Selectboard members, however, thought the fee hike was simply too much.

“Sticker shock I guess is the way to put it,” said Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs. “I’m nowhere near being OK with it. I think there is a huge liability to that in terms of who can afford to live in Williston.”

Board member Ted Kenney wondered if the fee increase could affect Williston’s ability to attract new businesses. He noted the town is trying to encourage infill development near big-box stores.

Chain retailers and other large corporations view impact fees as part of the cost of doing business, Nellis said. He added that smaller companies typically lease, so the fee would have a relatively small effect on them.

Fehrs asked if there was a way to give small businesses a break on the fee. Kenney asked if the fee could be progressive.

Nellis said that the fee must be based solely on a new development’s impact on transportation infrastructure or it could be challenged in court. The rationale for the fee, he said, is that “everybody pays their fair share.”

The town, however, could consider subsidies for things such as affordable housing. Nellis presented a proposal for waiving impact fees for affordable housing units later in the meeting.

The Planning Commission debated the impact fee this summer and recommended the hike because it was the only way Williston could fund the many transportation projects planned in the next decade. The town’s share of the projects, which include building grid streets around Taft Corners and widening the Interstate 89 overpass, would be an estimated $8 million.

“Going as high as $2,800 is really severe,” Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell told the board. “But that’s because we weren’t charging enough for a long time. The more time we spent on this, the more we realized this was important for Williston … to play catch-up.”

There is some urgency to raise the fee soon, lest the town forgo revenue from pending development. The 356-unit Finney Crossing subdivision, for example, would pay hundreds of thousands more in transportation impact fees under the new proposal, Nellis said. The town has approved the project but construction has not begun.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he expects the board to revisit the proposed impact fee increase later this month or in December.