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Open letter to the Lee County Commissioners

By Staff | Feb 19, 2014

To the editor:

We have been witnessing serious degradation of numerous Lee County Government policies and procedures over the past year. The most immediate problem is your plan to not allow any public input to your planned first year review on Feb. 18(Tuesday) of your 80 percent reduction in new construction impact fees. That’s shameful. I am certain the majority of Lee County citizens not only join with me in strongly supporting fair impact fees, but of course also continue to strongly support transparency and public participation in government.

Lee County has had impact fees since 1985, and they have worked very well to pay for schools, roads, parks, fire and EMS. The idea was that growth would pay for growth – an accepted principle of good local government. By virtually eliminating impact fees in 2013, you have shifted the burden of supporting new schools, roads, parks, etc., from developers (and new residents) to the taxpayers. That is grossly unfair. The existing taxpayers have already paid their impact fees, and now you expect them to once again pay the same taxes to support future development (while the land speculators and developers profiting by that development pay little or nothing). That is not only unfair – it violates the U.S. Constitution Fifth Amendment principle of equal protection. The notion of forcing taxpayers to pay as much as $32 million (over two years) in either sales taxes or property taxes – money that you divert to developers – is scandalous.

Repeated studies have shown that eliminating (or reducing) impact fees does not (as the building industry always claims) promote more building activity. What it does do is eliminate the source of funds to build essential infrastructure to support new development. The Lee County School System has already proposed a half cent sales tax because of the loss of school impact fees. Infrastructure money has to come from somewhere, and further raises in both sales taxes and property taxes are inevitable unless impact fees are restored. In 2013, you shamefully transferred the entire Conservation 20/20 budget to general revenues to cover that year’s loss of impact fees. Ineffective efforts to allegedly “promote new development” are not more important than protecting the environment.

Restricting public participation at commissioner proceedings is equally reprehensible and also raises serious legal problems. As you probably have been told by your legal staff, the Florida Legislature recently enacted a statute requiring more public participation in county government meetings. Inexplicably, you responded to that statute by further restricting public participation.

Lee County has over the past year began to establish a pattern of favoritism to developers and land speculators, and disdain for good land planning and environmental stewardship, as well as disregard for public participation in government. That’s disgusting.

For medical reasons, I can’t attend the meeting on Feb. 18, and, of course, would not be allowed to speak if I did; but if I could, I would be there just to protest by my presence the direction the county has been going over the past year.

Please restore impact fees – and this time make it progressive by providing incentives for infill and redevelopment and the avoidance of sprawl. Please restore conservation funding – and kick those recently appointed anti-conservationists off the Conservation 20/20 Committee. And finally, please restore public participation in local government – and start now by holding a public hearing to review impact fees.

Phil Buchanan

St James City