On The Agenda: Traffic Impact Fee Vote Tonight

By Beacon Staff

It all comes down to this. After two years of marathon meetings, thousands of pages of warring legal memos and traffic engineering reports, passionate and angry public comments, litigation threats and then some more meetings, Kalispell City Council will vote tonight on a policy implementing transportation impact fees on new development.

Or they won’t – but either way, a choice will be made.

The debate over transportation impact fees has, in this humble reporter’s opinion, been well documented but essentially boils down to two broad opinions. The traffic impact fees are designed to help pay for the road and infrastructure improvements necessitated by increased traffic from new development by assessing a fee on those new homes and commercial centers based on how much traffic they would generate.

Supporters of the fees say that “growth should pay for growth,” and contend that without them, long-time city residents would be forced to carry the burden of increased future taxes as Kalispell expands and roads deteriorate.

The business community, led by the commercial developers who would be hit the hardest by the new traffic impact fees, argue that the fees are unfair, possibly out of line with state law, and would stifle new construction and business at a perilous economic time in the valley.

Over the last several weeks of meetings, the council has essentially distilled the messy debate over the fees to a series of multiple-choice questions upon which they will vote at tonight’s special meeting at 7 p.m. The fees are the only item on the agenda.

First, council will vote to clarify how improvements developers already make to roads and city infrastructure would offset the amount of impact fees they are required to pay.

Then, council will look at three different lists of road improvement projects in its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that would receive funding from the traffic impact fees. What’s key here is that the size of the list dictates how much developers must pay. But since the impact fees would only cover a portion of these projects’ price tags, and since the city lacks the funds to pay the remaining costs of many of these projects, it appears likely council will trim the list to the realistic projects that can be completed – reducing costs substantially for developers.

The original list contains 10 projects with a growth-related cost totaling $12.4 million. One alternative chops the list in half to five projects totaling $6.3 million, and a second alternative trims the list down to four projects costing $4.3 million. Council will amend the CIP as it sees fit.

Next, the council must decide whether to insert provisions into its road impact fee policy that offers breaks or incentives to developers who already have projects underway. Several council members have expressed a desire to offer developers who are already through several phases of their projects some type of discount to encourage them to continue building.

One alternative would offer an exemption from road impact fees to developers who have received a preliminary plat from the city between July 1, 2004 and July 1, 2009, and have begun construction following that approval. This would exempt most of the major commercial development in Kalispell’s north side, including Hutton Ranch Plaza, Spring Prairie Center and the yet-to-be constructed Glacier Town Center’s first phase shopping center.

Another alternative would impose the fees at 75 percent of their determined cost to anyone who begins new construction in the next two years. This idea is designed as an incentive to get construction in Kalispell going again.

Finally, the council could opt out of “grandfathering” in any of these developments at all, or just do away with the concept of transportation impact fees all together, or delay a vote on the issue until some time in the future when the local economy is stronger.

It is unclear, given the many options, how council will vote on the traffic impact fees. Many council members have stated repeatedly their desire to come up with some type of compromise that allows new development to “pay its fair share,” without penalizing these new businesses for coming to the area. It’s a compromise, however, that has been hard to reconcile in terms of actual policy. Tonight’s vote should shed some light on how these council members really feel, as well as the direction of Kalispell’s future.

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