March 10, 2008

Calaveras County to Consider Raising Development Fees: Builders Criticize Slow Process to Approve Projects

By Dana M. Nichols, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Mar. 10--SAN ANDREAS -- Calaveras County builders and developers have been getting a bargain.

The county has been spending about $3.2 million a year to map new projects, review plans, issue permits and inspect construction but has only charged those who build those projects about half of that cost, according to a report released last week.

That soon could end. The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to study the report by Maximus Financial Services of Sacramento and might give staff some direction on whether the board wants taxpayers to continue subsidizing new projects. The alternative would be to dramatically increase Building and Planning department fees.

Those in the building and development businesses acknowledge that Calaveras County's fees are low compared with other jurisdictions in California.

"You can't expect them to be subsidized by citizens," Mike Borean of Borean Design in Murphys said of the costs the county bears to review plans and inspect buildings.

If county officials decided to set all fees at levels that would cover the full cost of services provided by the two departments, it would generate an additional $1.6 million a year, roughly doubling the departments' fee revenue.

The Maximus report found that it costs the county's Building Department $3,534 to process a permit for a typical 3,200-square-foot home, but that the fee charged is $2,070. That means taxpayers make up the $1,464 difference. The report argues that unlike police services, which benefit everyone, building permits benefit the person who builds the home and should be supported by a fee rather than taxes.

Other fees are even more out of line. The Planning Department charges a fee of $445 for an environmental impact report, but it actually costs $19,157 to get the work done, according to the report. Property owners who seek a General Plan amendment for their property pay a fee of $1,780, but the work actually costs $5,050, the report said.

Still, those in construction and development may balk at the higher fees unless they feel they get a correspondingly higher level of service.

"Some of the fees we have might be low in relation to other communities. But in other communities, we can also get a project processed," said Dave Tanner of Valley Springs, a golf course designer and land-use consultant.

Tanner said one of his clients, developer Ryan Voorhees of Galt, recently gave up on Ponte Ranch, a proposed 450-acre commercial and residential development in Valley Springs, because his application to Calaveras County has languished for three years with no action.

In contrast, Tanner said, he recently got a "multi-million-dollar" project processed and approved in San Jose in just 120 days. "It was just so smooth and nice and refreshing," Tanner said.

Calaveras officials are well aware that builders are unhappy with the county's slow processing of permits and applications. They note that in recent months, they've filled long-vacant land planner positions and taken other measures to speed permits along.

"Particularly on the planning side, we have hired some new and bright people," said Calaveras County Supervisor Russ Thomas, who represents the Copperopolis area, where much county construction is concentrated. "I have seen evidence that things are being processed differently."

Thomas said he sympathizes with the idea that people should pay their own fair share of the costs for building and land use permits. And he noted that even with the higher fees suggested by the report, fees still would be a relatively small part of the total cost of projects.

Borean agreed. He said new building codes that went into effect this year are adding $20,000 to $30,000 to the cost of the homes he designs. In contrast, a $1,464 increase in the cost of the building permit is minor, he said.

Thomas noted that many developers in Calaveras County already are voluntarily paying higher costs to hire private firms to complete planning and review work that county staff are unable to get done promptly.

Contact reporter Dana M. Nichols at (209) 754-9534 or [email protected]


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