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BoA ponders increased fees for neighborhoods

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Board of Adjustment members are mulling over whether a recent increase in fees is fair to neighborhood associations, but they aren’t yet ready to offer any solutions.

A cost-of-service study from September 2015 evaluated the fees charged by the city for planning and review activities related to cases brought before the Board of Adjustment. At the time of the study, the fees were $388 for residential cases and $688 for commercial cases.

Following that study and the recommendations of the Zucker Report, the city raised its fees, which are now more than $1,600 for both commercial and residential cases. The switch has some Board of Adjustment members wondering whether, in some instances, it might just be too much.

At their last meeting, board members began a discussion about whether the fee was an undue burden for neighborhood associations that go to the board over disagreements about how staff is interpreting the city code. The Board of Adjustment hears a handful of these cases a year.

Commissioner Melissa Hawthorne brought the issue forward. She pointed out that filing an interpretation case is a difficult, laborious process that is sometimes “almost impossible” given the time constraints. She asserted that those barriers make it unlikely that anyone would pursue an interpretation case just for the fun of it. “You have to be convinced you’re right,” said Hawthorne.

She also expressed concern that the new fees are prohibitively high for neighborhood associations, saying, “Even if it is that you just pay the cost of notification or something – it just seems like that’s a lot of money. … To join my neighborhood (association) it’s 10 bucks.”

Commissioner Don Leighton-Burwell relayed his own experience with his neighborhood’s request for interpretation of how nearby CrossFit gyms were classified. Confirming Hawthorne’s concerns, he said that although the neighborhood association was supportive of the case, it didn’t have enough money to file it; instead, individual neighbors did so, with the association showing up at the meeting to express support.

Leane Heldenfels, who is the Development Services Department liaison for the board, explained that the fees are the result of last fall’s fee study and are based on the time staff spent on cases. In years past, City Council had limited the amount by which fees could increase from year to year; however, the Zucker Report recommended that city fees match the real cost of service, which hastened the increase in fees.

“It shouldn’t be easy to just call out interpretation cases. The cost is the reality of the cost,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen, who added that he “didn’t have any heartburn” over the idea of neighborhoods receiving money back if they were successful.

“My concern is if we make it too easy for people to request interpretation cases … we’re going to be overwhelmed,” said Von Ohlen. “I’m OK with us finding a compromise, but I don’t want to open the door up.”

At the same time, Von Ohlen said he didn’t want to make it overly easy for city staff to stick with code interpretations that may be worthy of challenge.

Commissioner Eric Goff warned that, if they were considering waiving fees for neighborhood associations that prevailed in their cases, board members might want to consider additional restrictions. He pointed out that creating a neighborhood association “took less than a minute.”

Board members discussed the fees, with a promise to return to the topic again at a future meeting.

Photo by Phillip Taylor made available through a Creative Commons License.

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