Builders Protest Higher Fees

County Soil Conservation Agency Would Collect More For State-mandated Reviews

June 14, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Dozens of Howard County homebuilders already suffering through the recession are up in arms about sharply higher sediment- and erosion-control review fees they could be charged starting July 1.

The new rates proposed by the Howard County Soil Conservation District, an independent agency that reviews development plans for soil runoff, would impose more than $520,000 in new fees for a single section of Maple Lawn, the upscale, mixed-use community under construction near Fulton, said Charlie O' Donovan, vice president of development at Greenebaum and Rose, Maple Lawn's developer.

"You're essentially doubling our fees," he said, calling the new schedule "draconian" and "punitive."

Developers and others, led by the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, met Tuesday with soil conservation district manager Bob Ensor and county officials at the county's temporary offices in Columbia.

"You're just giving this industry a big boot while [it's] down," said Bob Corbett, vice president of Williamsburg Homes.

Charts prepared by the Homebuilders Association of Maryland contend that Howard's fees would be far above those in nearby counties such as Baltimore and Prince George's.

Ensor contended that the chart was inaccurate.

Ensor said the new fees for 15 different reviews required under state law are not permanently set and that he's willing to review them to see whether they are too high.

The builders say they feel as if they're caught in a turf war between County Executive Ken Ulman and the soil conservation district, and several suggested that development would slow even further if the fees rise.

"Why can't we leave the fees where they are and you guys work it out? Why should we pay more money for the same review?" asked Wayne Newsome, one of about 75 developers, builders, engineers and consultants at the standing-room-only meeting.

The issue stems from what Ulman administration officials characterized as a cost-saving move in January to enact state legislation to save $219,000 that the county pays for two plan reviewers at the soil conservation district. The bill would have eliminated the county funding by moving the work to existing employees within the county planning and zoning department.

Ensor opposed it as a "hostile takeover" and an attempt to curb the agency's independence. With support from county farmers, the Patuxent River Commission and others, the county delegation killed the bill.

On Tuesday, Ensor again referred to "shackles" his agency would figuratively wear, and "strings" affecting his independence if the county took over the work. The district's board of supervisors would not go along with that, he said.

"The legislation was a sucker punch to us and would have forced us to fire two employees and lose this function," he told the builders. "We chose to make a stand here."

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks said that argument mystified him.

"I don't know what the strings are," he said.

Ulman later cut the money from his budget anyway after Ensor said he wanted to keep the two workers and their review process and pay for them by charging fees. But instead of $219,000, he needs to raise $450,000, he said, because it is more expensive for his small agency to provide health insurance and other benefits independently of the county.

But the builders contend the suggested fees would raise far more money than is needed. Ensor said repeatedly that he's willing to re-examine the schedule and lower the fees if that is true.

Del. Guy Guzzone, the Democrat who leads the Howard County delegation, and Gail H. Bates, a Republican critical of Ulman's move last winter, attended Tuesday's meeting. Guzzone warned Ensor that the new fees would multiply his problems in the next General Assembly session.

"I can assure you that if there are incredibly unreasonable fees, you'd better believe there will be more legislation next year," Guzzone said.

"It's quite a mess for $219,000," Bates said later.

David Dows, who chaired the meeting for the homebuilders association, said he considered the hourlong session a success.

"I think it went really well, because there was not a lot of shouting," he said.

The homebuilders association hopes to meet quickly with Ensor to try to minimize any fee increases.

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