What Going Back Would Look Like

By Kellyn Brown

A lot has happened since March 9.

It was then that the Kalispell City Council approved traffic impact fees in what council members called a compromise and developers panned as anything but.

The decision was supposed to settle an issue that had been debated for two years; how much to charge developers for the added traffic that comes with the stores, office space and homes they build.

The council’s decision was this: Developments that break ground within the next two years will have to pay 75 percent of the scheduled rate and the number of projects to be funded by the fees will be cut in half, from 10 to five, reducing growth-related costs from $12.4 million to $6.3 million.

But developers were obviously surprised by the decision and the way in which the council made it. Before approving traffic impact fees on an 8-1 vote, a motion to table them altogether for two years failed narrowly, 5-4.

Those at the meeting could make the case that the council was sending mixed messages – with millions at stake. And since the fee’s approval, it’s clear that the issue is anything but dead.

Just two weeks after the vote, Mayor Pam Kennedy said the council would discuss at an upcoming workshop whether to revisit the issue. The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is pressuring the council to rescind its decision, submitting to it a list of 155 people who want it overturned. And now that Kohl’s and Petsmart opted against building on the north side of town (with the developer blaming the decision partially on potential impact fees) there will be an even louder chorus from those who think the council is further hurting the local economy when it’s already in dire straits.

So should the council reconsider its decision to implement traffic impact fees? If it does now, after overwhelmingly approving them after a two-year debate, here’s what it would look like:

Just weeks after voting on such a far-reaching decision, the council will be changing its mind, almost entirely due to pressure from the business community. Whatever your opinion of the fees, that is no way for a council to make public policy.

If the council wanted to delay adoption of the fees, or exempt some developers from paying them, that’s the way it should have voted in the first place. To go back now will appear indecisive, weak and deeply inconsistent.

Then again, if the council sticks to its guns and stands by its decision, it could be blamed for discouraging development at a time when contractors across the valley are hankering for work. That’s not entirely fair, as the fees can’t be blamed for the lull in construction any more than the overall economic picture. But the argument still can be made that the councilors chose an inopportune time to add hurdles for developers to jump.

Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said the petition was a way to “keep the arguments front and center for why we think it’s going to be debilitating for job recovery in the Flathead.”

It worked – the issue is alive and well. I don’t envy the council’s position. By agreeing to discuss impact fees again, it has only backed itself into a tighter corner.