Has the Mobility Plan fee moratorium spurred development?

With the fee moratorium deadline looming, it depends who you ask

By Steve DiMattia
Resident Community News

With the Mobility Plan fee moratorium scheduled to end Oct. 19, there are two pressing questions: First, did the moratorium spur development? Second, will the moratorium be extended?
But beyond those are more philosophical inquiries about the design of the city moving forward. Will there be a strategic change away from an automobile-centric metropolis or will the current building standards and status quo prevail? Then there is the question of how we will put Jacksonville back to work.
The Mobility Plan and the sometimes-complicated ensuing debate over the moratorium encompass all of this and more.
The plan reduces vehicle miles traveled and encourages alternate modes of transportation by “incentivizing” development in the urban core where infrastructure already exists to support growth. It integrates land development with transportation planning and has an impact fee system that funnels money from development back into the same area where the development took place to be used for capital projects.
One month after the plan was approved in September 2011, city council – urged by developers, many who supported and participated in the plan’s development – voted for a one-year mobility fee moratorium (Ordinance 2011-617) to stimulate the local economy.
The question is, did it succeed? Finding the answer should be a simple matter of gathering data on: the number and type of new development projects, the money invested in those projects, and the mobility fee amount that would have been collected without a moratorium. The city’s planning department maintains such a list. The problem is, not everyone agrees on its validity.
Under the moratorium, all mobility fees are waived. But the developer still must submit an application to the planning department and sign the waiver. The mobility fee is calculated and then the developer determines whether to proceed to permit.
“We only list projects that we have reviewed and approved for permitting since that’s when the timing starts for the mobility fee waiver,” said Stephen Smith from the Concurrency and Mobility Management Office.
Councilman John Crescimbeni said he asked the planning department to track the data. “I thought it prudent to get a list to compare what actually happens to what the developers were promising. The waiver was sold as a vehicle to spawn a bunch of development that would not otherwise be initiated.”
Of 100 total mobility fee applications equaling just over $16 million, developers chose to move forward on 26 waivers as of Sep. 12, totaling $2.6 million, or 16.25 percent.
“Based on what we were told, I would expect the data to reveal that there was a mini-spurt in development. What I’ve seen so far does not match what they said,” Crescimbeni noted.
Mike Herzberg, director of development for Sleiman Enterprises, disputes the accuracy of the city’s data. He believes projects should be counted prior to final permitting at engineering plan review instead. Mike Sands, whose department is responsible for that review, estimated that 98 percent of the projects that pass go through to permit.
“The moratorium ordinance does not make reference to tracking data, so it is misrepresentative of the planning department to wait until final permit,” Herzberg said.
Herzberg also argued that an increase in jobs, tax fees and property values due to new moratorium-spurred development was good for the city. “These far outweigh the nominal collection of mobility fees during these economic times.”
But San Marco-based developer Doug Skiles, who opposes a moratorium extension, suggested that the city might not view the fees as nominal.
“After the pain and suffering trying to balance the budget, it’s a mystery how we can even consider giving up revenue,” he said.
Ryan Schmitt, a local civil contractor who contributed to the reconstruction of San Marco Boulevard, acknowledged that tax fees and property values can generate long term revenue, but noted that capital improvement work not only creates jobs but also builds better roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure that contribute to quality of life and ease of transportation.
“First off, you have to ask if the moratorium actually stimulated projects that would not have otherwise been built. Then, you have to realize that the mobility fee is the main source that we currently have to fund capital projects, for which there is a great demand.” Schmitt said. “A lot of it comes down to what kind of city we want to live in.”
It is a question that city council will likely address in the form of a moratorium fee extension debate. However, there is no pending moratorium legislation before council. While Skiles has officially met with Councilwoman Lori Boyer and Riverside Avondale Preservation will submit a letter from its board opposing an extension, council members Bill Bishop, Jim Love, Boyer and Crescimbeni each report that developers have not yet lobbied them directly. Each also said that they would need to see conclusive data in order to extend the moratorium.
“The proof should be in the pudding. We have to be careful of getting into a permanent moratorium cycle,” Crescimbeni said.
He noted that, since there is only one council meeting between now and the Oct. 19 sunset date, the ordinance would have to be introduced and taken up as an emergency during that meeting (Oct. 9). Public hearing would occur at that time.
Herzberg said he recently had discussions with “higher level staff of the city” and suggested, “the mayor himself may introduce the ordinance; maybe the administration will see the value of increasing jobs.” Aleizha Batson, the mayor’s Deputy Director of Communications, said initial inquiries to identify any meeting between developers and anyone in the mayor’s office came up empty.
“No one who would normally be involved in such meetings knew anything about it. It is a legislative issue; the mayor’s office does not get involved until after city council takes action.”
Skiles feels that action will greatly impact Jacksonville’s future.
“My fear is that we are getting lost in the details and that we are forgetting why we need the Mobility Plan in the first place,” Skiles said. “The plan not only lays out a clear vision, but it provides a funding mechanism to reach that vision. The only question is: How do we want to move forward?”
Mobility Plan information: http://www.coj.net/departments/planning-and-development/community-planning-division/transportation-planning/mobility-plan.aspx

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