Road fee decision scheduled Feb. 17
Diane Theno was hoping that she and her husband, Scott, could break ground for their new home in September.
But because of a proposed plan to increase the county's road improvement fee, their home may have to wait.
On Feb. 17, Leavenworth County commissioners will meet to consider whether to hike road improvement fees assessed in rural areas of the county.
If they vote yes, the RIF could increase from the present level of $2,500 to about $14,000.
"It's fine to raise it a little bit," Diane Theno said. "But this is extreme -- that's quite a chunk."
If the increase goes through, the Thenos will put their plans to build a new home in southeast Leavenworth County on hold.
"We were going to pay for the road improvement fee out of our pockets and just borrow for the house," Diane said, explaining that they planned to cut corners by doing the work themselves. It could take up to a year to sock away the extra $10,000-plus to cover the proposed fee increase, she said.
Last Wednesday night, the county's planning committee voted 6-1 to accept the transportation committee's recommendation to increase the fee. If the county commissioners decide to adopt the plan, it could be implemented as early as March, according to John Zoellner, the county's director of planning and zoning.
Zoellner, who also headed the transportation committee that devised the plan, said the fee increase would affect large developers, as well as families such as the Thenos who want to build a new home to live in.
And it's likely, builders say, that at lease some or all of the $11,500 increase will be passed on to those who buy new homes.
The push behind the proposed increase, Zoellner said, is to make those who develop property pay upfront for the cost of road improvements.
The new plan has earned mixed reviews among area developers.
Tim Johnson described the increased RIF as "a good deal," and said he hopes commissioners approve it.
Johnson and his wife, Elizabeth, are developing 120 acres along U.S. Highway 24-40 in the extreme southwest corner of the county.
According to Johnson, who attended last week's meeting, the transportation committee's findings were hard to dispute.
"It was too well-documented, they did a really good job of backing up how they came to their decision and how this was going to be implemented," Johnson said.
Johnson said it seemed to him the only ones who argued against the implementation of an increased RIF fee were other developers who would be hurt by an increase in the RIF.
Under the proposed RIF plan, developments on highways will not be charged the RIF. However, these developers -- such as Johnson -- have the expense of building a network of roads within the development.
Not all developers agree with Johnson's assessment.
Tonganoxie builder Dean Oroke said the new policy could force developers to pay for road improvements that might never occur.
"It goes into a fund and there's no assurance that the project will ever be completed," Oroke said.
However, Zoellner said funds would be put into an account for that particular road. Presently, the money is earmarked for the township in which the development occurs.
"So if you're on a certain road and you pay the fee, it's going to do something for your road," Zoellner said.
Oroke also observed that he thought all rural roads wouldn't require the same treatment.
"I personally don't feel that every road in the county needs to be a chip and seal road," Oroke said.
And Oroke said this will impact farmers who may plan to sell ground at retirement or who decide to sell land to make ends meet.
Bill Theno, a farmer and developer who owns the Leavenworth County ground where Scott and Diane Theno plan to build a house, said a $14,000 fee is higher than necessary.
Theno said that last summer he put in a quarter-mile of chip and seal, which included two inches of base rock and a double layer of chip and seal, for $15,000.
This type of improvement, which didn't require widening, purchasing right of way or cutting down hills, would work in many rural areas, said Bill Theno.
But Zoellner said the county must keep safety in mind. If gravel roads are merely chip and sealed, drivers will tend to drive faster. And on narrow, hilly roads that could mean more accidents.
Grandfathering it in
What Tonganoxie developer Jack Willis doesn't like about the proposed plan is that it would affect land he has already purchased.
"I've got 23 lots out there in the works," Willis said. "It's going to wind up costing, at $14,000 a tract, $322,000."
Steve Gumm, senior vice president of First State Bank and Trust, said he realizes the county needs good roads.
But, Gumm said, development projects that already are in the works should be exempt.
"From the bank's perspective it would be better for us if these road improvement fees would have been known about in advance," Gumm said. "From a development perspective it's hard to analyze a development scenario after the fact."
Although Willis could lock in the RIF by buying building permits now, he said he wouldn't have enough time to build on all the lots during the time frame building permits, with one-year extensions, would allow. He said a fair plan would assess a $14,000 RIF on all new construction, whether it's on a gravel road or a paved road.
"I don't think a guy should be immune just because he's on a state highway," Willis said. "The people who live in these subdivisions are going to run on county roads, too."
In the past, no matter where a new home was built it was assessed the $2,500 RIF along with a building permit, Willis said.
Moreover, Willis said this plan would affect not just developers. More families will find themselves in the same predicament as Scott and Diane Theno, who will likely postpone building a house if the RIF increases to $14,000.
"If you've got any property that you've bought five years ago and you're going to go out and build you a house, you're going to be hit with this," Willis said. "And if you're a farm owner who wants to cut five acres off for you're kid, you're going to have to do this."