Talk of an impact fee surfaces as solution to Berkeley's growth challenges

Unprecedented numbers of commercial and residential developments springing up across Berkeley County are prompting local leaders to consider alternative ways to fund vital public services.

And imposing an impact fee might be a possible solution. The discussion surfaced during the county’s Land Use Committee meeting on June 10. No vote took place on the topic—just chatter, though members have agreed to continue researching it.

“We’ve been found. We’re vibrant; people want to live here,” said Councilman Josh Whitley on why Berkeley is one of the state’s top growing counties.

An impact fee is a fee placed on new or proposed development to help fund all or part of costs associated with providing public services to the development. It can be imposed on commercial or housing developments, or both, if council so chooses.

According to Councilman Jack Shurlknight, the county once implemented an $1,800 impact fee attached to every housing permit; the county also once required a transportation impact fee based on number of traffic trips—a fee Schurlknight described as a “nightmare.”

“It was so high that a fast food place couldn’t even locate here,” he said. “We did away with that as soon as we could.”

In place of the transportation impact fee, the county terminated in 2014, the county imposed the one-cent sales tax to help pay for roadway maintenance and construction; but the sales tax alone isn’t enough to pay for every related infrastructure cost the county is encountering.

According to county leaders, the county has about 80,000 new homes—in Nexton and Cane Bay communities—that the council has no control over and that a potential future impact fee couldn’t touch. But passing a moratorium—halting development in the county’s two largest residential areas— isn’t an option. County leaders said a moratorium would have no authority over Nexton or Cane Bay’s current development agreements.

Also, Schurlknight said he favors choices for property rights’ owners and wants to consider options other than moratoriums.

“I’m a big property rights person; I believe the people who own the property should be able to do what they want to it within reason,” he said.

But Council Vice Chair Josh Whitley voiced the need to not only lend an ear to residents but also take action to address their development concerns—roads being a central one he consistently hears from constituents.

“We have granted entitlements decades ago to build house after house after house in Cane Bay, and yet we hear from Cane Bay folks to stop development,” Whitley said. “We would be politically deaf if we didn’t hear folks who are frustrated with one issue—roads, roads, roads, roads.”

Whitley blamed the South Carolina General Assembly and the South Carolina Department of Transportation for not helping pay the price tag for road maintenance and repairs for state roads, forcing the county to find ways to fund the cost.

Councilman Tommy Newell, chair of the Land Use Committee, agreed.

“I’m pretty damn sick to see our local option sales tax go toward state and federal roads instead of county roads,” he said.

But county leaders united over an issue larger than whether or not to implement more county fees to help pay for growth-related challenges. They agreed they need to put more pressure on the local Legislative Delegation to fund the DOT, ultimately allowing more money to trickle down to local governments.

“That voice needs to come from this body,” Newell said. “It’s about time we put all of those voices together. We resound as one with this new leadership and Supervisor (Johnny) Cribb.”

Whitley said it’s unfair that the county, despite its leading the state in economic success, is receiving little DOT funding.

“(Berkeley County is) driving this state’s economy, and you fund us the least,” he said. “Let’s keep quality of life for current residents.”

While Councilman Kevin Cox agreed more attention is needed on county roads “and the state needs to put more money in the pot,” he said he thinks roadways aren’t the only added construction projects the county should consider; he said education and public safety should also top the list.

“You better build the schools, schools, schools, schools,” Cox said. “Let’s not forget the fire, fire, fire, and sheriff, sheriff, sheriff.”

During the impact fee discussion, concerns also arose about the county possibly not utilizing fees in a timely manner—an issue neighboring Dorchester County recently encountered. In 2018, Dorchester County was forced to refund about $3 million in transportation impact fees after the money wasn’t spent on road projects in the required three-year time period. County leaders there said they failed to collect enough fees to really contribute to a road project.

Overall, Berkeley County leaders said they don’t believe they’ll have an issue with spending impact fees on time, should the fee become a reality. Schurlknight also said developers must weigh in on the conversation.

“We need some contributions from (groups) creating these problems,” he said. “Hopefully there will be another way to generate these (public service) funds to help these problems.”

As another solution to generating more county funds to cover growth-related costs, the council spoke earlier this month about the possibility of adding a business license fee in the county’s unincorporated parts.