City wants to use the money for elite parks and trails

Local homebuilders are raising a ruckus over a proposed hike in the fees they pay to support parks. They say the city of Lake Oswego is using builders to prop up a network of elite recreational facilities and passing the cost on to homebuyers. City officials say the proposed changes are being driven by residents.

The disputed fees are called system development charges. They are paid by builders on new construction to fund park improvements in areas of growth.

System development charges - commonly referred to as SDCs - are also charged for road, water and sewer connections to newly constructed homes and businesses. The fees are intended to help city services keep pace with population expansion.

But when cities around the region began inching up the fees builders pay for parks in the fall, Lake Oswego stood out, according to Jim McCauley, vice president of government affairs at the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland.

McCauley believes Lake Oswego's fees are based on a 'wish list' of elite recreational options and cross the line between the necessary and the absurd.

In a proposal released to the homebuilders in February, the fees were slated to jump 142 percent, from $3,379 to $8,200 on a single family home. The new charges would be funneled to a number of projects in the next 15 to 20 years.

Oregon law requires cities spell out how the money would be spent. And in Lake Oswego, floating platforms, piers, boat docks, indoor tennis courts, a nature center, skateboard courts and equestrian trails are on the project list. Those items are in addition to the traditional paths and trails, open spaces and sports fields funded by parks development charges in most towns.

'Some of these elements just seem more elitist than they need to be,' McCauley said. 'Equestrian trails? They may be the only parks district in the state that is trying to do that.'

Parks Director Kim Gilmer said the projects have considerable public support. The list of proposed new facilities is based on the city's master plan for parks, developed in 2002 with extensive public input.

She said that goal of the fee increase is to narrow the gap between the current charges and the actual cost of building parks. Though the builders may question the need for things like equestrian trails and indoor tennis, she said, Lake Oswegans want them.

'It's not the staff that identified the list, it was an extensive community process that identified what the priorities are,' said Gilmer.

City Manager Alex McIntyre said that's the way it should be. State law gives the latitude to set parks priorities to communities, not builders.

'If within our community it is viewed that this type of infrastructure is indeed necessary, then I don't think it's for builders to determine that (it's excessive),' he said.

Lake Oswego is not alone in proposing increases to parks development fees. Portland increased its fees by 152 percent this year, increasing the charge for a single family home from $3,117 to $7,879. Other districts have also approved increases.

But if Lake Oswego's proposed fee were to pass, the city would be in the top three in Oregon in charging parks development fees to builders. The city would rank at about thirteenth in overall fees charged for new construction.

McCauley said the Homebuilders Association has always wanted more control over how cities determine parks needs and may pursue tighter rules with the Oregon Legislature in 2009. Mean-while, he wants elected officials to be thoughtful about the costs they pass on to homebuyers.

'Really what it comes down to is a policy call for the city council. Do they really think the city of Lake Oswego needs to have equestrian trials and all these other complexes in their SDC calculations?' he said.

'If they're serious about affordability issues and serious about trying to attract young families into the school system this is one of those policy opportunities,' he said.

The Lake Oswego City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed fees June 17 at 6 p.m. That hearing takes place at Lake Oswego City Hall, 380 A Ave.

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