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Arguments continue over parkland dedication fees

Thursday, September 1, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council members will have a series of knotty problems to solve at today’s meeting, including who should pay parkland dedication fees and how much those fees should be. In addition, they will be looking at perhaps the most controversial issue of all: When should commercial developers be required to pay the fees?

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison has already proposed keeping the fees for the upcoming fiscal year at the same level as this year. The city doubled its fees for fee-in-lieu payments last year; however, as the price of land continues to go up there are still arguments in favor of raising the fees to some extent, perhaps 25 percent.

Under the existing parkland dedication ordinance, developers of residential properties are required to donate land or pay a fee-in-lieu so that the city can continue to acquire parkland as Austin grows. Members of the community and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board have pushed the city to include commercial development among those paying for parks. Another hot topic has centered around whether the city should continue to increase the fees developers must pay each year as the price of land continues to increase.

The Planning Commission has proposed 20 changes to the parkland dedication ordinance. The most likely one to win Council approval is the suggestion that developers of income-restricted affordable housing units not pay parkland dedication fees on those units.

While both Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter agreed with that idea at Tuesday’s work session, they expressed different points of view on when fees should be paid. Adler said he was hopeful that payment of the fees could be postponed because when developers pay early in the process, they have to finance those fees along with the costs of development.

PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley said her staff had spent many hours trying to understand what delaying the payment would mean to the department and discovered there would be many unintended consequences from delaying collection of the fees.

Randy Scott, a parks department program manager, told Council during the work session that he and his staff had met with staff members from other departments, including Development Services, Transportation, Housing and Planning, and Austin Energy to get their input on collecting fees at a later date. They concluded that moving collection of the fees would be very labor-intensive and would require additional staff.

Changing the timing of collecting the fees to later in the process would mean the department would not have any parkland dedication fees coming in “for a few years,” Scott said. In a response to questions from Adler, Scott said about 90 percent of the fees coming into the department for acquiring parkland comes from developers of apartment complexes.

Alter had “very serious reservations” about changing the timing of fee collection as suggested by Adler. “It adds time to the process, it means we may need to have additional staff,” she said. Although Council members Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo both seemed to support Alter’s position, it was not clear how the rest of Council would vote on the item. Council Member Chito Vela expressed support for Harper-Madison’s proposal that fees for 2023 not be increased.

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