The Baldwin County Legislative Delegation is expected to reconsider a local bill, which, if passed, would require developers of subdivisions with 100-plus lots or units to share their plans with the school superintendent, so the school board “may provide” input regarding student capacity.
State Sen. Chris Elliott sponsored virtually the same bill last year in the Senate, but it stalled in the House of Representatives after pushback from a handful of developers and every mayor in the county, all 14 of whom signed a letter of opposition claiming it would undermine the authority of local planning commissions and complicate statutory timelines.
In the 2020 legislative session beginning next month, Elliott said State Rep. Harry Shiver will sponsor a slightly reworded bill in the House, but there is little indication opposition has changed.
“It adds some definitions to clearly define what is a municipal planning authority and things like that … but I continue to think it’s a good idea to consider our school capacity when looking at growth and new projects,” Elliott said. “We consider sewage, water, power, road access and everything else, but we don’t look at schools and I think that’s critical infrastructure too.”
Essentially, the bill would require any developer seeking the approval of more than 100 lots or units to submit development materials to the superintendent “prior to the filing of the petition to the granting authority.” Then, the school system would have 30 days to review the application and “may” provide the granting authority information regarding the project’s estimated potential impact on student capacity, along with recommendations for mitigation.
In turn, the granting authority “may” consider the information provided by the school system in the authority’s review of the petitioner’s application.
Elliott said he was surprised by the mayors’ opposition to the bill last year because his intent was to provide local planning authorities with more oversight, not less.
“I think they misread the intent,” he said. “It gives [municipal planning authorities] additional authority where they ‘may’ consider input from the superintendent about school capacity. It’s important to note that under current law, they ‘may not’ consider school capacity when approving projects.”
Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy, who led the municipal opposition to the bill last year, said his primary concern was the superintendent’s 30-day timeline to review plans and submit recommendations. Under state law, municipal planning authorities only have 30 days themselves to begin the preliminary review process. Elliott’s first draft allowed the superintendent 90 days to submit recommendations, the new bill only allows 30 days.
“It might have the best intentions, but we may not be able to honor it because we don’t have time to honor it,” Murphy said.
Over the past several years, the city of Robertsdale has only received an average of one application per year that would be subject to the requirements of the bill, Murphy said, yet he realizes school capacity is a concern both there and countywide. Since last spring, Murphy said he’s been supplying the school board with the city’s planning agendas, but he has not received one call or any feedback in return about any potential development, including for a 260-unit apartment complex proposed in the fall.
“I’m a firm believer that goodwill has value, but if there is such a concern, we have 14 separate municipal planning commissions across the county and one for the unincorporated areas, so maybe the Board of Education should have someone at every one of those meetings,” he suggested.
In a statement on behalf of the 2,300-member Baldwin Realtors, CEO Sheila Dodson was more blunt: “We appreciate the need to plan for growth in the schools as residential lots and new development strengthen our county. That’s why we have been sharing future development information with the [school board] through monthly reports and updates. The [school board] already has information available to make informed decisions about school population growth from a variety of sources. Planning for student growth can be accomplished without the need to add another layer of government regulation to the development process. This proposed law is a government overreach by inserting the [school board] into the development approval process, and infringes on the rights of landowners. They shouldn’t be able to stop a landowner from developing homes on their property because it may mean adding classrooms, in which there will be years to accommodate.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
From the school board’s perspective, Chief School Financial Officer John Wilson said it is doing all it can to keep pace with residential development and new students.
“We’re in the middle of a $100 million construction phase, along with we basically rezoned the entire Eastern Shore and Foley, so we have seven schools that will be reconfigured for the start of 2020 – 2021 school year,” he said. “We’re trying to use every tool in our toolbox to account for this growth, really our goal in this bill is just to have better communication on the front end so we can provide the most accurate data regarding the school impact for future development.”
Wilson said the school board catches wind of new residential developments “weekly or monthly” and it has been so rapid in some areas, change orders have been required to expand the capacity of schools currently under construction.
“A perfect example is in this last building phase, the board had to approve about $5 million in change orders to Belforest Elementary and to the Foley’s Mathis Elementary School … because of new, material developments that came online in a very close proximity to the schools that were not really even in the works or even factored into the original planning or design,” he said.
Wilson believes the school board was only able to adjust its plans for those schools because of the strong economy and “worker mobilization … but we can’t always guarantee that will be the case in the future.”
“Being able to know what’s coming down the line and what that impact will be well let us better plan and reallocate our funds to where we can have the biggest impact on addressing the growth throughout the county,” he said.
Another school board representative, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said some developers have been better partners than others and the bill would level the playing field for only six or seven companies that develop residential properties to such a large scale. Among those are DSLD Homes, DR Horton and its subsidiary Forestar Group, Adams Homes, Breland Homes and a handful of investor groups in apartment communities.
But in recent years, the largest developer in the county has been 68 Ventures, the parent company of Truland Homes. Last week, CEO Nathan Cox said it has developed 2,834 single-family lots since it was founded in 2015 and while only 10 of its subdivisions are larger than 100 lots, it has six under construction now and nine more on the drawing board “that may or may not [be built].”
“People were calling me saying ‘obviously you’re against this bill,’” Cox said. “But I said, ‘Look we’ve been doing this for years.’ We talk to the school board on a month to month basis, we meet every quarter, we share all of our data with them so they know what’s going on. Our whole business is built on the success of our school system, so to me, [this bill] makes zero difference in our world.”At a subdivision known as Stonebridge on U.S. Route 31 between Spanish Fort and Stapleton, 68 Ventures is currently building out and selling lots in the first three of seven phases that will ultimately feature thousands of homes. In November, the school board signed a memorandum of understanding with the company, accepting the donation of 30.9 acres within Stonebridge as a site for a future elementary school.
“This isn’t just a regular neighborhood, it’s a 4,000-acre, master-planned community that will take decades to build out,” Cox explained. “But over time, it will have 10,000-plus people living on it. It’s a long-term investment designed around where a perfect site would be for an elementary school. Our investor group was on board with donating some of the best acres we had on the property to build a new school and we have several projects we’re trying to do the same thing on because again, so goes the school system, so goes our industry … plus it’s good business too.”
Wilson agreed, praising the donation and the board’s partnership with 68 Ventures and adding that land for new schools is particularly hard to come by and expensive along the Eastern Shore and in central Baldwin County. The city of Orange Beach also donated land for its new middle and high school.
“Property is always a challenge,” Wilson said. “We have to have at least 20 acres, and that’s the minimum we can build on and it kind of increases from there. Stonebridge … that was a perfect example of coordination between the developer and the board, where we saw all the phases of development and we saw what was on the horizon. We knew that we needed to figure out a way to address it and they were able to donate land exactly in the area where we needed to build a school, which, in the long run, is going to be beneficial to both parties. Valuations will go up in the development and will we have land in the exact spot that we need to handle that growth.”
The county’s $100 million pay-as-you-go program is funded by short-term bank loans at low interest rates, Wilson said, but there is a limit to the amount that can be borrowed in a particular time frame. Meanwhile, any new state or federal revenue generated by the influx of new students is primarily spent on operations, not capital expenditures.
At least two mayors, Murphy in Robertsdale and Karin Wilson in Fairhope, have suggested there is a better way for the school system to accommodate and plan for growth, but county and state politicians are reluctant to embrace it.
“The real problem is what they need is an impact fee, but let’s see which legislator wants to sponsor that,” Murphy said. “The penny tax has been really good and has continued to go up from a booming economy, but eventually [the school board’s] expenses will shift from the capital side to the operations side. There will be a lot of burdens on the education system because of growth and unless you come up with permanent fix, it will only get worse.”
Wilson said impact fees are levied in Florida, which has experienced similarly rapid growth statewide, but he hasn’t seen any interest here.
“That will either have to happen at the cities or the County Commission or even on the legislative end,” he said. “Anything would be helpful. I don’t think that will fully solve the issue but it can certainly be part of a solution.”
Meanwhile, Elliott said, “If the cities or county have better ideas, they can talk to me or [Shiver] about it. We’re trying to make the time period short so you’re not slowing down developers and private industry at all, but you’re giving the school system time to look at it and make a recommendation one way or another to the cities.”
He hopes the bill will have better luck this time by being introduced in the House.
“There are mega developments coming from now to decades down the road, Baldwin County is not going to slow down,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is allow and require municipalities and school systems to work closer together to adequately plan and fund the needed infrastructure to accommodate this growth.”
DEVELOPER’S BILL203770-1 - Developers Bill
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