The Impact Fee Study That Never Was

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks introduced Baltimore County Council Bill 16-19, which imposed a development excise tax on new non-residential construction and a development impact fee on new residential construction. The purpose of both is to help defray the costs of expanding public facilities to accommodate the demands of new construction.

I wrote an opinion piece criticizing the bill. Mr. Marks responded with his own commentary, describing mine as “predictably negative.”

Mr. Marks said something striking in his commentary that led me to conclude that perhaps I had not been negative enough. In response to my criticism, Mr. Marks touted his 1997 master’s thesis on impact fees and explained the reason that he wanted an impact fee rather than an excise tax applied to new residential construction as follows:

“Impact fees are different than excise taxes in that revenue must be spent in a localized manner — in other words, money collected from a development must be used for schools, roads, and infrastructure near the affected community. Money from an excise tax can be spent anywhere.”

Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County (2018)

Actually, development impact fees are not inherently different from development excise taxes. What was true in 1997 when Mr. Marks wrote his thesis no longer is true in 2019.

A 2018 case decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals, Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County, held that impact fees need not satisfy the so-called “rational nexus” (also referred to as the “rough proportionality”) test to be constitutionally sound. Therefore, under the constitution, impact fees generally applicable to specified types of new construction are indistinguishable from development excise taxes in that they “can be spent anywhere,” to paraphrase Mr. Marks.

Although the rational nexus requirement is not constitutionally mandated, the General Assembly is free to impose it on a jurisdiction as part of an enabling act. Under the rational nexus model, there be a reasonable relationship between the public facilities on which the fees are spent and the new construction on which the fees are imposed. There must also be a reasonable relationship between the amount of the fees and the fiscal impact of the new construction on public facilities.

Notwithstanding Dabbs, it appears from his commentary that Mr. Marks intended the impact fee adopted by Bill 16-19 to be based on the “traditional” (pre-Dabbs) model. In other words, subject to rational nexus requirements. Among those requirements is a formal impact fee study that must be done before the fee scheduled can be established.

An impact fee study is a substantial undertaking that follows what is now a widely accepted methodology.  Here is a link to a recent impact fee study done by Frederick County:                                    https://www.frederickcountymd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/302741/0213—2017-Impact-Fee-Study?bidId

What happened to the impact fee study?

The requirement for an impact fee study was described in the Fiscal Note to Bill 16-19 prepared by Baltimore County Auditor Lauren Smelkinson as follows:

“[T]here must be a reasonable connection, or nexus, between the amount of the impact fee imposed and the actual cost of providing facilities to the properties assessed. The projects and services funded by impact fees typically include public school construction, libraries, community colleges, transportation, public safety, parks and recreation, and water/sewer utilities. . . In order to justify the imposition of a development impact fee, a jurisdiction must conduct a study that measures the effects that new development will have on public facilities.” [Emphasis added.]

The county auditor did not make up that description from whole cloth. She took it directly from the legislative history of the enabling act for Bill 16-19, which was Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland, enacted into law as HB 449. It is worth noting that Baltimore County has had the authority to enact a development excise tax since 1953. The explicit authority to impose an “impact fee,” however, is new.

The Fiscal and Policy Note prepared for HB 449 by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services contains the same language as the Fiscal Note for Bill 16-19:

“In order to justify the imposition of an impact fee, a jurisdiction must conduct a study that measures the effects that new development will have on public facilities.”

And therein lies the rub: Despite the description of the requirement by both the Department of Legislative Services and the county auditor, no impact fee study was done by the county council before the impact fee schedule in Bill 16-19 was adopted.

Now what?

The consequences of the council’s failure to do an impact fee study are uncertain. One consequence could be a legal challenge to the fee schedule based on the absence of an impact fee study justifying the fees.

The requirement for an impact fee study is not expressly stated in Chapter 657 of the 2019 Laws of Maryland. Then again, the requirement was not included in impact fee enabling acts before Dabbs. It was implied under the constitution.

Is the requirement for an impact fee study implied in Chapter 657 and in Bill 16-19? The most authoritative accounts of the legislative intent of the General Assembly and Baltimore County Council seem to think so. Also, in the preamble to Bill 16-19 the council itself states that the purpose of impact fees is “to provide funds for various public facilities proportionate to development.” That’s rational nexus, impact fee study language.

Thus, an argument can be made that the Department of Legislative Services and county auditor were correct, and that the General Assembly and County Council wanted the constraints of the rational nexus test to apply to the fee. That argument is made more persuasive because the county already had the authority to adopt a “no constraints” development excise tax.

There was no point in passing Chapter 657 unless the General Assembly intended to create an option for defraying the costs associated with new construction in Baltimore County that differs from the development excise tax option. The rules of statutory construction militate against interpretations that would make a statute redundant.

A competing explanation is that neither the Department of Legislative Services, the County Auditor nor Mr. Marks were aware of Dabbs v. Anne Arundel County when they wrote what they wrote. In other words, the legislative intent as described by the Department of Legislative Services and repeated by the county auditor may simply have been a mistake based on outdated law.

If it was a mistake, it should have been recognized and corrected before Bill 16-19 was passed by the county council. It is never a good idea to have the implementation of a bill directly contradict the requirements of the bill as described by the professionals paid by the legislative body to prepare such descriptions; indeed, it is difficult to overstate how unacceptable such discrepancies are in competently done legislation, given that they are invitations to litigation. 

For all its other shortcomings, Bill 16-19 was an extremely sloppy piece of work. Sorry, Mr. Marks, but the bill deserved my “predictable negativity.” And then some.

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