Business owner balks at increase

County impact fees produce $14,000 in permit costs

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SHAWN GUST/Press Robert Thomas, owner of Prairie Avenue Mini Storage, ties rebar together Tuesday while working on an expansion project at his Post Falls storage site. An increase in impact fees nearly kept Thomas from being able to expand his business.

COEUR d'ALENE - When Robert Thomas first approached Kootenai County about expanding his mini storage facility, everything looked cut and dry.

A building permit for a new 7,200-square-foot structure would cost roughly $4,000, which he expected.

But when Thomas returned, the cost had increased. Then it increased again.

"Every time I walked into Building and Planning, the number changed," the Hayden Lake man said. "And it wouldn't change a little. It would double."

The county is now collecting impact fees for several service districts, staff explained, charged to folks building new structures.

For Thomas' new facility, he must pay fees to the Sheriff's Department, EMS, Post Falls Highway District and the jail.

Now the permit cost is up to $14,000.

"I either get these impact fees under control, or I'm done," Thomas said, adding that the permit is now 20 percent of the total project cost.

Thomas is among the first builders to experience the new county impact fees since they were approved earlier this year, collection beginning on June 1. Under the arrangement, new developments are charged per square foot by service entities impacted by the project.

The intent is for new growth to pay for itself, compensating for the extra burden it puts on public services.

But Thomas said the fees compromise the ability of middle class folks like himself to build at all.

"I don't have that type of money," he said. "I went back to the bank and said, 'I need $10,000 more on the loan for my permit.'"

The owner of Prairie Avenue Mini Storage is pursuing the expansion because his storage buildings are full and he has turned away new customers for months, he said.

But this experience has dampened his additional expansion plans, like a new covered parking lot, which he can't afford with impact fees.

"It's just not fair," Thomas said, adding that his business would have less impact than different companies in the same size building.

Still, he has paid the fees for the new building, with an appeal for the county to waive them.

"Win or lose, at least I stood up for what I think is right," Thomas said.

Commissioner Todd Tondee pointed out that impact fees are intended to help government entities provide the same level of service as new growth boosts demand.

Without impact fees, Tondee said, the county would have to allow the levels of service to decline, or make up the difference by raising property taxes.

"It is a very good tool, but it does cause issues like this," Tondee said of Thomas' situation. "Hopefully it doesn't deter development."

Builders can file for a waiver for the fees, he said, in which case the commissioners can choose to pay the fees out of the county general fund.

"We'll look at those situations very carefully," Tondee said. "The whole point is not to take money out of the general fund."

There have been some complaints since the county started collecting the fees, Tondee added, with some owners just surprised.

There have been comments that the fees are too expensive to build, he said.

"But the public says, 'If you don't build, we won't need additional services,'" he pointed out. "It's a catch-22. We're in a tough situation."

Not all local taxing entities have arranged for the county to collect impact fees on their behalf yet.

As Thomas waits for an answer from the county, he said, he must still pay interest on his loan from the bank.

"I have to start paying interest on it and hope for the best," he said.

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