It was the night before Halloween, so you could forgive them for being frightened.
Every candidate ran away screaming (no, not literally) from a question Scott Nichols asked during the Thursday forum in Harlem for the Columbia County Commission District 4 seat: Are you in favor of impact fees on new development?
George James said no; he favors partnerships with developers. Rosa Lee Owens said it depends, you have to be careful, you have to judge the long-range implications (was that a yes or no?). Sam Jones said no; he favors making rules on development clear. John Bentley echoed the misgivings. Ditto Lee Anderson.
Nichols is first vice chair of the Columbia County Democratic Party, and most of the contestants in Tuesdays race are avowed Republicans. As Jones pointed out, the answer separates the GOP from the Dems.
Well, I certainly aint a Democrat, and dont believe Ive ever been accused of being one (though a spectator Thursday did accuse me of being a wannabe Phil Kent because I gave my opinion - imagine that - of the candidate she supports). I could have dressed up like a Democrat for Halloween, but it would have traumatized the neighborhood children. (Hillary Clinton for president? Eeeeek!)
I dont believe in ghosts or goblins. But I do believe in impact fees. And the question I asked Nichols after Thursdays session was: Where the heck were you guys when the development community was marching on me like Frankensteins pitchfork mob after I called for impact fees on new projects?
I sure could have used an ally years ago when I advocated a fee - say, $1,000 per home - on new construction.
The construction community reacts to impact fees like vampires to garlic. Impact fees are unfair, they say. Besides, Georgia law is very restrictive on how impact fees can be used, they huff. County officials, like loyal Igor, chime in: We already have hidden impact fees, the say, because of tougher building standards.
Besides, they all contend: Impact fees would just scare off homebuyers. The countys growth would suffer.
Unfortunately, the opponents of impact fees have had a little trouble proving it. North Georgias Cherokee County has fees averaging $1,800 per new home, yet its growth keeps booming.
But the fees are often illegally imposed, say the builders. Well, Cherokee defended its fee in court against a lawsuit filed by the Atlanta Homebuilders Association, and won again this summer on appeal.
It still burns me up that early in the discussion over stormwater problems, county officials mentioned impact fees on new projects as one side of the equation, and a stormwater fee on existing residents on the other. About 10 seconds later - the time it took for developers to dial their cell phones - impact fees vanished like a ghost.
Builders have worked hard to develop their defense against impact fees. And their industry network fights the fees harder than tariffs on cheap imported lumber.
And county residents probably dont realize that state law allows the imposition of a fee on new development to help offset the immediate, increased need for such things as roads, schools and police and fire protection.
Besides - and heres where I somewhat part from the Democrats philosophy - I like the fact that impact fees raise the admission cost for coming to Columbia County. Is that elitist? No. Its an acknowledgement that lots of people want to come here to get a slice of our quality of life. Theres no reason they shouldnt help pick up a little bit of the tab for all the effort weve already put into building this paradise.
Whatever the case, we have to take friends where we can get them, and for Democrats, welcome to the party. Hope you brought your garlic.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.