North Raleigh News

School impact fees discussed, approval unlikely in Wake County

Wake County school board members have proposed studying impact fees as part of a new task force that would work with municipalities in dealing with growth.

But other elected officials and policy experts say it’s doubtful that the state’s courts or the General Assembly will grant any new authority for fees charged for each new home to offset school and infrastructure costs.

“It seems pretty clear they’re going to have to go through the legislature, and the legislature today doesn’t seem inclined to extend that authority,” said Richard Ducker, an associate professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government.

With enrollment rising by 3,000 children annually, the 155,000-student school system is concerned about growth pressures. A school board committee recently recommended the growth task force and board members said they wanted to study all options.

“How we can work with our local municipalities to help us with that, as well as perhaps developers and Realtors, in helping sharing some of the costs?” school board member Keith Sutton, a Democrat, said at the committee meeting.

But the General Assembly hasn’t granted authority to a municipality or county to charge impact fees on developers since 1989. Legislators have sided with the homebuilding industry, which has argued impact fees are regressive and discriminatory.

Chatham and Orange counties are the only two counties allowed to charge school impact fees. The fee is as high as $11,423 on a new single-family dwelling in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system.

State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican called impact fees “an irrational way to fund school construction.” He said property taxes and sales taxes should be used instead.

The state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have struck down school impact fees imposed by counties such as Durham because they weren’t expressly authorized by the legislature. The courts have also ruled as illegal programs such as those used in Cary in which developers could pay fees in lieu of getting the school system to certify that there were enough seats in town schools.

In Cary, Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, a Democrat, said the town is now trying to reduce the densities of new residential projects instead of the school fees.

“We had a lot more leeway to do innovative things,” he said. “In the past 10 years, all those things have been pretty much eliminated by the legislature and the courts. You can’t stop growth now.”

Tim Minton, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, said the right solution is to anticipate where the growth will come and plan new schools financed by school construction bonds.

“Education has been a community issue,” he said. “It always has been and always will be. The community as a whole has to be engaged and participate financially.”