Builders watching road fee proposal
The county's road improvement fee could be headed for a steep hike.
Currently, when builders and developers who construct homes in rural Leavenworth County obtain building permits, they pay a road improvement fee of $2,500.
But the county is considering a change that could drive that fee up to $14,000.
On Jan. 28, Leavenworth County commissioners will meet with the county's planning and transportation committees to discuss the possible increase.
Any change would be reviewed by the planning commission and approved by the county commission.
One area developer, Tim Johnson, said that while the increase may seem high, in the long run when considering the county's road system, it's probably a good investment.
Johnson and his wife, Elizabeth, are developing High Prairie Point on U.S. Highway 24-40 just south of Loring Road.
The 120 acres will be platted for 38 homes. Because they're on a highway, the Johnsons won't be charged a road improvement fee. But to build roads within the development will cost about $350,000.
"We knew that going in," Johnson said. "We priced the lots accordingly -- nobody in the county is paying for that."
Other area developers contacted -- three of whom didn't want to be quoted by name, saying they didn't want to offend other developers or county officials -- had mixed views. Two of the builders said they viewed the proposal as positive for the county. The third developer said if the proposal passes, it will slow the county's growth.
"That's going to pretty well stifle the growth in the county if that's what they're wanting to do," the developer said. "That's going to hurt the farmers, the people that own the ground in the county -- everybody."
If the transportation committee's proposed road improvement changes are enacted, Johnson agreed it's possible that the cost of undeveloped land may decrease. And ultimately, he said, developed land could cost more.
"It will have to increase land prices to some degree at the retail level," Johnson said. "But not the entire $14,000 amount, and the kicker is -- ultimately what we're trying to do here is build roads and that will increase the value of the land. Road improvement is still a decent investment back into the community."
The underlying premise of the proposal, which would pay for the improvement of gravel roads where development takes place, is to encourage developers to plan community-type developments with interior roads, rather than dividing land into piano-key lots along an existing road.
For instance, an 80-acre tract could be stripped into eight 10-acre lots. But if developed more effectively for growth, the same land could possibly be platted for 28 homes, said John Zoellner, director of Leavenworth County's planning and zoning and a member of the transportation committee.
In the above contrasting scenarios, the developer who has 28 lots to sell rather than eight lots, could more easily afford a higher road improvement fee, Zoellner said.
"The bottom line of this thing is to try to get the system fair to everyone involved and to keep the taxpayer out of this as much as possible," Zoellner said. "When development occurs the development will pick up its share and not leave it to the taxpayers to do later on."
Johnson said fairness is the key.
"If everybody has to pay this fee, that's fine," Johnson said. "If everybody is playing the same game, that's fine. But I don't know if that's exactly how it's going to turn out or not."
Joe Daniels, a Leavenworth County commissioner, said he's not aware of all the details of the proposal. But he said changes must be made.
"We have to do something to keep up with the cost of road building and not charge the taxpayers-at-large for it," Daniels said. "Generally, I think that new development should be paying for itself, as it were, and not create a burden to the existing landowner or taxpayers."
In the past, all new homes in the county were charged the road improvement fee. But if the proposed plan goes into effect, developers of homes constructed along paved highways will no longer be charged a road improvement fee. And for those building on blacktop roads, the road improvement fee will have less of a bite.
"If you're on an existing county hard surface road, you'll pay less of a fee," Zoellner said. "The idea is it's basically for improving rock roads."
Laying the groundwork
If the proposal goes through, developers will pay the fee when they plat the ground. On land that already has been platted, the fee would be collected when a building permit is obtained.
There are several problems with the current plan that would be resolved if the proposal goes through. For instance, under the current system, road improvement fees are designated to townships, not to the specific road in front of a property.
"Right now if you give us a road improvement fee, there's no guarantee it will go on your road," Zoellner said.
And, he said, $2,500 doesn't pay for much road improvement.
"You'd get 10 to 15 feet done on your road. Well, big deal," Zoellner said. "The problem is you're not getting much done and you're not benefiting the people who pay the money."
The proposed plan, Zoellner said, would allow the county to use the fees for road work where it was assessed.
Condensing the growth
Zoellner said the county would prefer developers build along hard surfaced roads, rather than on gravel roads.
"If you're going to have development, why not put it on the roads that can handle it," Zoellner said. "It isn't rocket science -- you've got a major road, why not try to put the development on that road first, rather than put it back two miles on a rock road."
Gary Ditty, a project engineer with Landplan Engineering and a member of the transportation committee, said that he initially didn't favor the proposal.
"I was looking at the developers' interest," Ditty said. "This is costing them money. This is who I work for. So, obviously, I was biased at the beginning. That was partly why I got on the committee."
But after learning more, Ditty said he began to view the idea from a different perspective.
"Overall, I guess I think it's a good thing," Ditty said. "What we're trying to do is make the development basically pay for the road improvements."
Meanwhile, Johnson, who lives near Jarbalo and has been involved in development of about 450 acres in Leavenworth County, said that for the buyers and sellers, the proposal would mean there would be more of a give-and-take situation.
Johnson predicts the county's growth would continue, which in itself would add to the value of land.
"People are coming out here," Johnson said. "The growth is basically being pushed to us and it comes down to the county planning for growth."
Johnson said, where infrastructure is concerned, water is the most important consideration, with roads taking a close second.
"If you push it to the developer, he knows that he's going to have to all of a sudden offer a little bit less for his ground when he buys it," Johnson said.
"The farmer will have to take a little bit less of a profit, but in the end he'll still make money.
"The market will work it out."
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