Developers brace for sticker shock in Ridgefield School District

The county has signed off on a sizeable increase in school impact fees for the state’s fastest growing district

CLARK COUNTY — On Tuesday night, the Clark County Council voted unanimously to approve updated school impact fees for several school districts, with one exception.

The County Planning Commission had recommended that Ridgefield School District’s request for a 55 percent increase in school impact fees paid by developers, with another 12 percent increase next year. That would have increased the fee from the current $6,530 for both single and multi-family housing to $10,100 in 2020, and $11,290 in 2021, the maximum allowed under state law.

Ridgefield High School. Photo by Chris Brown

“One of my school board members said just a couple of weeks ago at a meeting, it’s kind of ironic and perhaps even a little sad that you can have a moratorium around growth and building when there isn’t adequate sewer capacity, but there’s been minimal regard with respect to school capacity, “noted Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann during Tuesday’s hearing. “That struck a chord with me.”

The Ridgefield school impact fee issue came up earlier this year when the council was deep into debating funding options for improvements around the I-5 and 179th Street, which will allow thousands of new homes and businesses into the area over the next 10-15 years.

With Ridgefield routinely at or near the top of Washington’s fastest growing cities list, McCann says their estimate is that Ridgefield schools could see student enrollment increase by 1,700 students over the next five years.

“It would be like, in the next five years, taking the La Center School District and plunking that down in the Ridgefield School District,” McCann said.

Marnie Allen, assistant superintendent with ESD 112, noted that there had been no testimony against the school impact fee request, and even some indication that Ridgefield’s recent failure to pass its third building bond measure may have been due, in some part, to residents believing that developers need to shoulder a larger share of the burden.

“$11,290 is a large amount,” said Allen. “$70 million to build schools is even larger, and $11,290 is only going to pay a fraction of that cost. It takes all the funding sources to pay for schools.”

New Ridgefield High School building under construction in February of 2019. Photo by Chris Brown

Council Chair Eileen Quiring responded to that comment, saying it’s easy to ask developers to pay more when you already live in the district.

“Those people that are in the community now are saying, ‘we want somebody else to pay some impact fees when they come in here,’” said Quiring. “So they’re not actually paying this, it’s going to be the future occupants of those homes that are paying it.”

Councilor Gary Medvigy noted several times during the night that he worries adding to developer costs will inevitably result in more expensive housing, potentially exacerbating the county’s housing affordability situation.

“At some point, at some price point, these fees are going to absolutely impact the affordability of homes,” said Medvigy. “It’s unavoidable.”

Ryan Makinster, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Clark County, said home builders in the Mount Vista overlay, which includes the I-5 and 179th Street area, would be facing at least $25,000 in fees per housing unit.

“That does not include other fees or permitting that it’s required for these developments,” said Makinster, “let alone other regulations and requirements that add cost to the price of a house.”

Makinster added that BIA isn’t necessarily against fees that help to offset the impact of new development, but noted that it can’t help but impact the cost of housing.

He also cited a recent study which showed that every $1,000 increase in the price of a home puts it out of reach for another 768 families in our area.

McCann said he’s aware that nearly doubling the school impact fees will most likely result in higher costs for housing.

“I welcome discussions around affordable housing in Ridgefield, we’d like to see a more diverse set of housing options,” McCann said. “But the school district’s primary responsibility is to make sure that we have facilities to serve the students in the district.”

McCann also noted that the district’s excellent school rating is consistently one of the top reasons people move to Ridgefield, and the city feels that needs to be maintained.

“The reason people are moving to Ridgefield, is because it’s a frickin’ great city,” said Councilor Julie Olson, whose district includes the city. “And it’s got a great city council, it’s got a great form of government, it’s a community — a real community. And they’re asking us to do this, so

that basically speaks a lot.”

Quiring also noted that Ridgefield’s school impact fees have, historically, been lower than surrounding districts, perhaps lending to the added sticker shock of this increase.

“Maybe the decision should have been to actually be gradually raising this over time,” she said, “because this does seem like a really huge jump, and it does affect affordable housing.”

“I am supportive nervously of this,” added Councilor John Blom. “But I think it highlights one of the challenges of living in a beautiful area where people want to live.”

Unlike several other districts who also had school impact fee changes approved on Tuesday, Ridgefield is not in the midst of a capital improvement plan update. That will come next year. So the council determined ultimately to approve the 55 percent increase this coming year, but hold off on the 2021 increase with the goal of looking at it again next year in light of the capital plan.

Blom said he would support that approach to avoid having developers rush to get projects underway next year before the second increase in 2021.

Allen said the more measured approach could give the district, county, and city of Ridgefield time to analyze the results of the bump to $10,100 and get feedback on whether a further increase is needed in 2021. 

Other districts

The council also approved school impact fee adjustments for Evergreen, La Center, Hockinson, and Woodland school districts. 

In La Center, rates were dropped by 15 percent for a single family home, from $4,111 to $3,501, and by 39 percent for a multi-family residence, from $5,095 to $3,104. The decrease was made possible largely by the passage of a building bond in February of last year, which will allow them to build a new middle school set to open at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

The stark difference between La Center and Ridgefield prompted Medvigy to wonder if the system was creating some inequity between districts.

“Ridgefield is in a completely different situation,” responded Olson.

“The number one factor driving the change in the fees is the cost to build a middle school instead of an elementary school,” said Allen, adding that “if voters don’t approve a bond, it doesn’t mean that school impact fees go sky high and the developers pay more. At the end of the day school impact fees is going to cover maybe 10 percent of the cost.”

In Evergreen School District the council approved an increase in single family impact fees of 5 percent to $6,432, along with a decrease in the multi family rate by more than half, to $3,753. Allen noted that the calculation was based on a significant change in where new students are living, with fewer coming from multi-family housing. 

“We had a point in time during the housing crisis where apartments were built in Evergreen and a lot of kids moved into those apartments, so those multi family units were having a lot of impact on schools,” said Allen. “That’s kind of self-corrected.”

Evergreen voters approved a $595 million dollar bond in 2018 that will help to build new elementary schools, an alternative campus and new administrative office, as well as an expansion at Heritage High School.

For Hockinson School District, school impact fees will increase next year by 28 percent for a single family home to $7,790. Multi-family impact fees will jump by 23 percent to $3,434. That increase was driven partly by growing costs for construction, but also due to the fact that multi-student households are more common in the Hockinson district, raising the impact of each unit of housing on the schools.

Hockinson School District is currently in the planning phases for a new elementary school, with plans to seek approval for a bond sometime in the near future.

Woodland also raised impact fees, primarily on multi-family housing where the rate went up 136 percent to $5,900. That will match the single family housing fee, which increased 18 percent. Only a small part of the Woodland School District is in unincorporated Clark County. Some is also in Cowlitz County, with the bulk inside Woodland’s city boundary.

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