PALMETTO - A draft final report says the county could cut road impact fees in the Port Manatee Encouragement Zone even more to attract new businesses to the area near the port.
Whether they'd get the reduction is another matter.
Whit Blanton of the Renaissance Planning Group, told the Port Authority on Thursday that his report looked at ways that are technically and legally defensible to cut impact fees for port-related businesses.
The key finding was that a technical evaluation justified a more than 200 percent decrease in road impact fees from port related development.
For a warehouse using of 250,000 square feet, a business could pay a $767,000 road impact fee, but in Port Manatee Encouragement Zone, it would pay $352,000.
For a manufacturing use of 250,000 square feet, a business could pay a $547,000 impact fee. But in the encouragement zone, it would pay $270,000.
For industrial use of 250,000 square feet, a business would pay almost $1 million for the road impact fee, but in the encouragement zone, it would pay $500,000.
"I want to caution, we did not incorporate any of the 50 percent reduction that the County Commission has incorporated impact fees for a two-year period," Blanton said. "This is what the impact fees would be at their 100 percent level."
Also, he said, there is no justification for cutting the impact fee to zero. "In a nutshell, the savings are substantial. I want to caution, it's a potential for substantial savings," he said.
Of course, this should be used to market the port's zone to businesses and can't be guaranteed, he added.
"This is a marketing tool. This is a bit of information that I believe port authority staff can share with potential developers coming into the port encouragement zone, saying, 'We have a way that we can guide you to substantial savings in your transportation impact fees to make this port encouragement zone more competitive with similar port-related element areas around other ports in the country."
Any developer that came through this process have to deliver an independent impact fee analysis before they could justify any savings, Blanton said.
"They will have to identify three comparable uses and go through that exercise," he said. It's not an easy task, but presumably someone in the industry will have better resources and information."
One strategy for the county is to prepare a very detailed site master plan for that zone with the area and type of development identified. Put together a specific development plan, and you may be able to identify up front what the fees would be, Blanton said.
"You can't do that today, because you don't have a detailed enough site plan for the port encouragement zone," he said. "It's just an overlay and you don't really have a good sense of the details of what kind of businesses, and where they would go and how much they would have."
If that plan was put together, he said he thinks it would provide a legally defensible basis to set this up. It would still allow some flexibility, but development would have to fit within some expectations.
"If you chose to go this route, it would have to be incorporated into the county's code, because that's not really currently contemplated," Blanton said. "This could also set you up and maybe play into a future impact fee structure countywide that would separate the impact fee maybe into subdistricts. I know there was some initial discussion about doing that. I don't know how far along the county is on that, but if that happens, you have a natural subdistrict in this area."
The county commissioners, sitting as the Port Authority, were mostly enthusiastic about the report, though Chairman Ron Getman cautioned, "The report's not intended to serve as an impact fee assessment for a specific part of the encouragement zone."
Donna Hayes said it sounded exciting. "I see the closeness to the Panama Canal, the closeness to the possible port connector, once we get that going, and of course the possibility that closeness to business sections of Manatee County," she said. "If Lakewood Ranch was included, I'd be really supportive."
Blanton replied, "Be careful what you wish for, because some districts may see an increase and some may see a decrease."
The big issue was the definition of a port-related business, with Carol Whitmore noting that they wanted port-related businesses near the port and not east of I-75.
Deputy County Attorney William Clague said that there are different definitions and different standards for different government bodies.
We were looking at types of uses that come into an area, Blanton said. That and intensity would be factors in a master plan. The next step, he said, might be to show these as potential savings.
"That's been our dilemma," Getman said. "We've been looking at a simplistic definition that may not have the legal basis that we need for the goals we're trying to accomplish. "One thing we need for our marketing plan is consistency and certainty. And what Commissioner Whitmore is asking for is some certainty."
"It's a great opportunity for people to use as a marketing tool for coming to this county," Joe McClash said, but it's no guarantee. "I don't really feel comfortable authorizing something for the unknown. I'd rather just see where it goes with the marketing aspects and have developers come in, and they could basically just say, 'Here's my menu of uses, and here's my impact fee analysis.'," he said.
Hayes said that they were only approving the analysis and that it had no teeth in it. Her big issue was that she hasn't figured out what a port-related business is. The county could open itself up to a lawsuit, she said, if it denies something.
"They may have met all of our planning and zoning requirements, even if it was a retail establishment - say it was a Wal-Mart of whatever - we really would have to exempt them," Hayes said.
Clague said, "We would, but it's a quasi-judicial process just like any application for a permit or rezoning. If they can demonstrate to a judge in the evidentiary record that they have established an entitlement to a reduced fee, then we would have to give it to them.
"We recently took an appeal of an impact fee dispute - it's the first one I know of in the history of the county -- and the board upheld staff's decision on it and it was not litigated."
So we would be extending a possible impact fee credit without any port-related guidelines regarding what should be there, Hayes said.
Getman then read a definition that basically said the encouragement zone was for businesses involved in water-borne commerce, and said they'd deal with the situation.
Larry Bustle agreed that the study could be used as a marketing tool.
Hayes said that she was worried about the Planning Department forgiving impact fees, but said, "I do not want to stand in the way of this being used as a marketing tool, as long as it's explicitly explained."
But McClash said that they were using specific information. A business owner could be saying his business is unique, so here's my study. And the planning director could look at it and says the businessman is right. "We don't have to get involved because it's not changing what the code says," he said.
The motion to approve the study passed 7-0.
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