Board to explore impact fees, tax breaks

YOUNG HARRIS - A couple proposed methods for dealing with growth could slow down the development of houses but at the same time boost the Gwinnett economy.

Over the next 12 months, issues such as impact fees, setting up an economic development department and transfer development rights will be on the table for county government, commissioners said Tuesday during a goal-setting session at the board's annual retreat.

After years of requests from homeowners looking to slow down development and alleviate school overcrowding in one of the nation's fastest growing counties, commissioners called for a committee to study impact fees.

The fees, which would be charged to developers building houses and shopping centers, are becoming more popular in Georgia since a law in Cherokee County was upheld by judges.

The town of Braselton is among the more than 30 local governments that charge such fees to pay for infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer lines. State law does not allow impact fees to be used to build schools.

Officials, though, say the proposition may not work in Gwinnett, especially since Cherokee's fees had the consequence of a 400 percent rise in annexations of land into city limits.

"Let's quit talking about it and let's see what it's really about," said District 4 Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who proposed the formation of the study group.

In past election cycles, Kenerly has faced competition accusing him of being too friendly to developers. Kenerly is up for re-election next year, when the committee's work will begin.

Kenerly said he wants the committee to begin meeting by March 1 and include a homeowner or two and representatives from the county's legislative delegation, the business community, county staff and city leadership.

"We see lots of problems, but there are lots of good things about it," he said.

Kenerly said he wanted the county to not hide from the public on the issue and even hopes those homeowners who accuse him of being too business-friendly will participate.

"I want the person that's throwing the rocks on the board," he said.

Tax breaks

At the same time that county officials will debate adding fees to developers, they will also be thinking about giving tax breaks for businesses that bring in jobs.

Chairman Charles Bannister listed the creation of an economic development arm for the county government as his top priority for 2006.

The day before, Bannister and his colleagues heard from Michael Hughes, the director for Cobb County's Office of Economic Development. Hughes said the county adopts an ordinance each year outlining the kind of tax breaks and incentives he can offer to companies interested in setting up shop in the nearby suburb.

Bannister said Cobb's method could be beneficial to Gwinnett or the county can designate a person to work with the Chamber of Commerce to lure businesses to the area.

While the county's residential growth has continued its boom, the business growth in the county has not kept up, causing a shift in the tax base toward homeowners.

"The depth and breadth of the program can be worked out as we move forward," Bannister said. "But I think that's a must for Gwinnett County."

Transfer rights

District 1 Commissioner Lorraine Green said the ideas of impact fees and economic incentives may become a situation of "robbing Peter to pay Paul," but she said both are worth the county's efforts to study.

She was interested in another study that could affect the county's growth - transfer development rights.

The idea would allow developers to build a more dense development in one part of the county by buying the development rights of land in another part of the county. That means one part of the county would become more urban while another is left undeveloped.

"We can actually save the last functioning farms in Gwinnett County with this method," she said, adding that the measure could be a part of the county's proposed high-rise condo ordinance, which could be voted on next week.

Green said the county would likely need help from the Legislature in rewriting laws to make transfer development rights a possibility. So far, only one project has happened in the state, she said.

Chairman Charles Bannister said he didn't believe that implementing transfer development rights would be a good idea because he said it would hurt the county's effort to build a bigger commercial tax base.