County eyes smaller fees for business

Officials may simplify approval of permits for industrial projects

Aim is economic boost

Budget director says reduction in revenue may hamper proposal

March 03, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

At a time when Carroll County faces a tight budget, the commissioners are looking to bolster economic development by slashing fees and simplifying the review process for commercial and industrial expansion -- the kind of projects that generate substantial tax revenue.

The commissioners are weighing a proposal by Ralph Green, director of the county permits, inspection and review department, that would cut permit and review fees up to 50 percent and put the review process for smaller commercial and industrial projects on the fast track.

"Our fees, compared to neighboring counties, are high. These high fees are largely due to past budgetary needs," Green wrote in a report he presented to the commissioners yesterday. "Hopefully, this proposal will generate more commercial [and] industrial activity in the county and as a result provide more jobs and an increased tax base."

Under Green's proposal, Carroll's development review fees -- which can total more than $4,000 per project, depending on its scope -- would be reduced by 30 percent over three years; building permit fees would be cut in half; and small-scale commercial and industrial projects would be exempted from review by the county planning commission.

The commissioners are reviewing Green's proposal with a critical eye, hoping it will help Carroll County's bottom line. Business provides slightly less than 12 percent of Carroll's tax base -- the lowest business-to-residential ratio in the region. More than half of the county's labor force works outside the county.

"Lots of factors -- including infrastructure and the cost of improvements -- influence a developer's decision to build in an area, but anything that reduces costs should encourage people to develop more in Carroll County," said Edward J. Levin, a Baltimore real estate attorney.

The commissioners have made economic development a priority. Their strategic plan, a "to do" list for their four-year term, calls for "business-friendly government processes and fee structures."

Shortly after taking office in December 1998, the commissioners asked Green to assess the county's development fees and suggest improvements.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell has suggested that the county slash all fees for commercial and industrial building projects. The commissioners have not discussed his proposal, but seemed enthusiastic about Green's.

"I'm ready [to vote] whenever you are," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier told Dell yesterday.

A former member of the county planning commission, Frazier has repeatedly said she would like to see more businesses move to the county and believes the development review process needs to be simplified.

Green's proposal would address her concerns by exempting small-scale commercial and industrial projects -- those that would disturb less than 5,000 square feet of land -- from landscaping requirements and a review by the planning commission. Projects that disturb less than 20,000 square feet would also be exempt from planning panel review.

The changes would cut development costs because county staff would spend less time reviewing projects, Green said.

"Businesses would no longer have a six-month waiting period as they move through the planning approval process, and the cost would go from something like $5,000 to maybe $500," Green said.

It was not clear yesterday how much the fee reductions would cost the county.

"We are not in a position to meet everyone's expectations," county budget director Steven D. Powell said of the budget for fiscal 2001, which begins July 1. "We're looking at $11 million in new revenue and $3 million in new debt. That leaves $8 million. The Board of Education's request alone would consume all of that. That's the context under which we're working."

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