Tide Turning Against Traffic Impact Fees

By Beacon Staff

The recession that has cut such a deep and painful swathe through the Flathead economy may well take yet another casualty: Kalispell’s proposed transportation impact fees. At another work session Monday night to discuss the proposed fees, it was clear most Kalispell City Council members don’t believe the impact fee is anywhere near ready for a vote, nor do they seem to have the political will to impose more taxes on developers at such an economically fragile time.

Councilman Bob Hafferman suggested putting the fees, “on the shelf for 10 months.” Councilman Tim Kluesner questioned whether the city should, “wait six months, eight months, a year and work out these details we know need to be fixed?” Councilman Duane Larson conceded that if development stops in Kalispell it will be because of the economy, not transportation impact fees, but added, “however, if we impose the impact fees, it will probably be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I don’t want to be the one that lays that last straw on the camel’s back.”

Mayor Pam Kennedy did not make clear where she stood on the issue, but was quick to defend developers as taxpayers too when Councilman Hank Olson sought to portray the debate as a choice between whether developers or city taxpayers will bear the cost for the road improvements necessary to accommodate the increased traffic generated by new developments.

Councilman Wayne Saverud said he agreed with Larson, and supports “fair, reasonable impact fees,” but also made clear the traffic impact fees, in their current form, were not ready for a vote: “This is probably the most complicated piece of potential ordinance that I’ve ever seen,” Saverud said. “We still need to wrestle with it until we can find something that we can be proud of, as opposed to just endure.”

Nearly everyone present, from city council members to developers, said they support the idea of transportation impact fees, so long as they are “fair and reasonable.” But after two years of deliberation, “fair and reasonable” transportation impact fees that are agreeable to every sector of the economy seems about as abstract a concept as world peace: Everyone supports it, but no one has any idea how to achieve it.

That isn’t to say the impact fees are dead. No votes are taken at a work session, and at the end, Kennedy ordered the city staff to draw up a shorter list of road improvement projects, on the thinking that a less expensive list of projects would reduce the impact fees on developers. She also ordered a straightforward comparison of what Kalispell’s impact fees would charge a large, retail commercial development compared to the road impact fees already in place in Bozeman and Missoula.

Hafferman requested a report outlining how the “Extension of Services” agreement the city works out with a developer to determine how they will pay for water and sewer service could be applied to roads, and whether that could provide more information about the improvements for which developers are already required to pay. Council plans to take up the road impact fees again at its Feb. 9 work session.

But it was clear from the atmosphere in the room that those in favor of the traffic impact fees could feel the tide turning against them. Supporters of the fees sighed and shook their heads as council members commissioned more studies from city staff and spoke of their desire to delay voting on the fees until some time in the distant future when the economy is stronger. Developers chatted good -naturedly and planned where to meet for a drink.

With Jim Atkinson absent, Randy Kenyon was the lone city council member who – outwardly, anyway – maintains support for the impact fees. And he seemed frustrated that the council seems to move farther away from a vote on the fees the more it examines them.

“Are we going to make the impact fees dependent on a new, separate policy?” Kenyon said. “We’ve spent two years on this, to start something altogether new, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.