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Commentary: Cities, counties should consider impact fees

To begin, consider for a moment you’re in your early 60s. You bought your home 25, or so, years ago. The mortgage is almost paid. You’re an empty nester. The kids are grown up and moved away. You helped with their college education, but were still able to set aside a little money for retirement. You worked for a company that once had a defined contribution pension plan, but dropped it and made employees convert to IRAs. You live on an unpaved street in a home with a well and septic system. Sewer and water are in the distant future—that is until a developer shows up and proposes to build two hundred McMansions on nearby vacant land and use your street as a corridor for the development’s sewer and water infrastructure. You don’t need, or want, the improvements, but the developer needs them to complete the project. Even so, you’ll end up paying the full cost of the improvements if you decide to hookup to the sewer and water even though you’re not the reason the infrastructure needs to be there in the first place. The total cost could be as much as $890,000 spread over the 10 properties in your neighborhood, according to estimates from 2013. And, yes, you live on Rolling Oaks.

Next, consider being retired in a home you’ve lived in for many years, a home with many wonderful memories, but your property taxes have become unaffordable because the city and the county need to build more infrastructure and hire more employees. That and the school district is planning a multimillion dollar referendum along with a big increase in its operating levy—and you will have to pay for all of this on a fixed income.

Finally, consider living in a quiet neighborhood of older, modest homes until the county and the city decide they need to make improvements to an adjoining highway that will require the taking of homes and the destruction of your neighborhood and the closing of the principal thoroughfare through downtown.

Some psychologists and HR people call this role-playing. I prefer to call it empathy. Empathy is more human and real than some ersatz team building exercise in a problem-solving workshop. It’s “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference.” It’s walking in their shoes and in their footsteps.

It’s been said that people will never understand something until it happens to them, but directly, or indirectly, whether it’s higher property taxes, or traffic congestion, or a lowered water table, or a lake that’s getting more polluted from invasive species and runoff, or the isolation of the downtown and the destruction of a neighborhood—this is happening to all of us. These are the unintended consequences of growth and development in an era of steadily increasing income inequality that sees more of the economic benefits go to the few, while the costs get passed along to a shrinking middle class. It’s the stuff of political and social upheaval that we’re seeing, today, amid a rapidly aging population that will shortly number more people over 65 than are in our public schools.

The aging of the Baby Boom Generation has been something put off to the distant future, but that future has arrived. The long run has become the short run. It’s with us, and it’s going to get worse absent some fundamental change in how we manage and control the consequences of sprawled development.

I’ve written that growth doesn’t pay for itself and it doesn’t, but who should pay amid a shrinking workforce and an economy that’s changing from work-based to retirement, entitlement-based? Should we take a page from Lake Elmo and other communities in Washington and Oregon and tell developers to pack up and go away and, with it, pick a fight with the Met Council? Isn’t controlling growth worth a line or two in our 2040 plan? Do we really want to annex more land in adjoining townships and pay for expanded infrastructure so developers can spread more subdivisions?

Minnesota is late to the game, but other states, notably California, have turned to impact fees and levied them on developers and landowners who profit from projects that promote the growth that creates the need for the infrastructure and the schools that all of us end up subsidizing through our property taxes— then conveniently disappear to make still more money somewhere else. Maybe its time to make them leave some of that money behind to pay for the unintended consequences they create.

The courts have ruled that impact fees are taxes and taxing authority for counties and local governments has to be granted by the Minnesota Legislature. Right now that specific authority for impact fees doesn’t exist. It should be a subject for the next session. Our city and county officials should take the lead and make it happen.

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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)