Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Schools Proposal Shows Need for Cooperation

I attended the meeting today of the Utah Legislature's Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, where there was an interesting discussion about a proposal to grant density bonuses to developers if they donate land for schools as part of their development plans.

Rep. David Cox sponsored a bill in the 2005 general session of the state legislature that proposed to do this, but the idea was relatively new and unvetted and did not go anywhere then. Today, Rep. Cox was back with the idea, along with the finance manager of the Alpine School District (I did not catch his first name, last name is Smith).

Mr. Smith essentially talked about how schools seem to get short shrift in planning and development approvals when new housing developments are considered by local governments, and some of the problems that have been encountered. He even cited one example where the city of Herrimann required one developer to set aside and donate land for a school as part of his plans, and then the city turned around and told the school district they would have to pay the city market rate for the land (did this really happen? Is there more to this story?)

The intentions of Rep. Cox and Mr. Smith are certainly in the right place -- schools need to be treated like other necessary community infrastructure and planned for, but our system of separate governmental entities with different powers and duties often precludes that from happening.

Jodi Hoffman and Gary Crane, representing the Utah League of Cities and Towns, talked about a number of difficulties with the bill as proposed, but did agree that some better means of coordinating with the school districts needs to take place. They rightly pointed to the bill passed by the legisature in the 2004 session regarding planning for facilities of regional significance. Under this bill, government entities are required to notify each other whenever they proposed to develop plans affecting land use and building facilities. Thus, cities are to notify the school districts whenever they are considering changes to their general plans, and school districts are required to notify local governments when they are considering plans for new schools and facilities.

If this process were to work as envisioned when the bill was passed, there would likely be much more dialouge between these entities and some accomodations could be made by both. But I suspect that even though the bill was passed, not much is actually happening. Oh, there may be notices sent out to each other as plans are considered, but I'm guessing the notified entities are generally ignoring those notices and what they could be doing to foster coordination and cooperation.

Another issue is the actual requirement of a land donation. This could only be done for developments that are large enough to require a new school on their own, I think. That's because such a requirement would still be subject to the proportionality test required by the courts and by law for such an exaction. In other words, a city or county could only require the developer of a project to contribute to the extent that his development requires new service, in this case, new classroom space for students. Let's say a new development is projected to generate 25 new students. That's certainly not enough to require a new school to be built. So how do you get that developer to contribute only enough land to accomodate 25 students in his development? It's the same problem local governments have had in past years requiring land contributions for new parks. It just makes more sense to put a monetary value to the requirement, and assess an impact fee, which fees can then be used collectively to buy a site and build a new school when it becomes warrented.

However, our same state legislature several years ago put the kibosh on impact fees for schools, mainly because of the knee-jerk reaction against impact fees by development-minded legislators, hence we now face a logical extension of the same problem.

The proposal to grant developers density bonuses for contributing land for schools also raised the issue of laying the cost for dealing with one entity's problems on another. Density is always a hot topic for cities and counties when developing general plans and approving new development. Under this proposal, an area zoned for a certain density could suddenly be built with more units than was anticipated because the developer was willing to contribute land for a school. How do you think that will go over with the neighbors, who were relying on the zoning in place "guaranteeing" a certain density? And who will likely catch the heat for that change? Not the school board, I'm betting.

So there are some problems with this proposal as it is put forth, but it raises the appropriate issues of how various local government entities need to find better ways of working together to address these concerns. And, of course, the legislature needs to be part of this.

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