WSD’s fee plan shocks Washougal city leaders

Citing slower growth, Washougal School District plans to reduce residential impact fees to $0 beginning in '23

The Washougal City Council has approved a Washougal School District plan that will reduce residential impact fees, which help fund school facility needs related to the city’s growth, to $0 in 2023.

The Council approved the school district’s 2022-27 capital facilities plan and impact fee schedule during its Dec. 5 meeting — two weeks after the mayor and several Council members said they were surprised the school district was planning to not charge residential developers impact fees.

“I swear, (I thought) that was a typo,” Washougal Mayor David Steube said during the Council’s Nov. 21 workshop. “But it’s not a typo.”

“That’s highly unusual,” Councilwoman Michelle Wagner added.

The plan approved Dec. 5, will amend Washougal’s comprehensive plan to show the city will collect zero dollars for single-family and multi-family residences as of Jan. 1, 2023.

The school district has charged developers $5,600 for single-family and $5,800 for multi-family developments since 2016.

“(The decrease) came as a surprise to us, too,” LeAnne Bremer, a Vancouver attorney who represents the school district on its land-use permitting and real estate transactions, told Council members during the Nov. 21 workshop. “I admit that this is a very unusual result. In almost 25 years of doing impact fee work, I’ve never seen a case where a jurisdiction stopped collecting impact fees after starting up on them.”

Washington state’s Growth Management Act authorizes local jurisdictions to collect impact fees to supplement funding of additional public facilities needed to accommodate new development.

“Impact fees reflected within this capital facilities plan do not include expenditures for new permanent facilities needed for growth,” the school district stated in its updated capital facilities plan. “Therefore, the district will not be collecting additional impact fees once this plan is adopted until the plan is updated and additional facilities are identified to serve growth.”

Washougal school officials recently reevaluated the district’s enrollment forecasts, including trends in land development, housing starts and residential construction, and concluded the school district’s residential growth has slowed “significantly” since the mid-2000s.

“Given current enrollment, the core facilities are sufficient at all schools except Hathaway Elementary School, where the addition of three portable modular classrooms is beyond the capacity,” the district stated in its 2022-27 capital facilities plan.

The district now projects its enrollment will steadily decrease over the next few years: dropping from 3,067 students during the 2022-23 school year to 2,910 students during the 2027-28 school year, based on projections from the Johnson Economics Demographer Report, which the Washougal School District uses as a baseline.

Les Brown, the school district’s director of communication and technology, has said the district is experiencing a “short-term decline” in enrollment that will “eventually be offset by growth in the community.”

“One thing came up at the planning commission (meeting), and it was a good question: ‘What if things change dramatically in the coming year?'” Bremer said. “We can come back to you next year and ask for an update to our plan; you can open up your comprehensive plan once a year. So, if we get a huge enrollment burst, we’re not stuck for six years.”

Councilwoman Janice Killion said worried the school district is already in need of more space, and pointed to the fact that the district is already using seven portable facilities to accommodate 14 classrooms.

“They’re already short of space,” Killion said on Nov. 21, “so it doesn’t make sense.”

Bremer told Killion “the law is pretty strict that you can only collect impact fees to fund facilities needed for growth.”

“There’s capacity at the schools,” Bremer said. “Yes, there are portables. But another requirement of the law is that you can’t use impact fees to fix existing deficiencies, so we have to look at this as a snapshot in time. And, unfortunately, that’s just the way the law is written … we can’t use the fact that kids are in portables to support continued collection of impact fees now. We could certainly spend the impact fees that have been collected on facilities needed for growth that are reflected in their current plan.”

Wagner asked Bremer if the enrollment forecasts anticipate the city’s projected growth, specifically mentioning Ninebark, the 246-unit apartment complex that Killian Pacific, a Portland-based construction company, is currently building on the Washougal waterfront.

“(The new apartments) were taken into account, because there is existing capacity in the schools, not just portables, but in the actual schools themselves, too,” she said.

Wagner also asked Bremer if local residents could be forced to pay higher taxes for future capital projects as a result of the impact fee change.

“The only way that the taxpayer pays more is if a bond is passed,” Bremer replied. “The fact that zero impact fees will be collected won’t change that. It could result in a higher bond amount. Sometimes they are (higher) and sometimes they’re not. It’s a district-by-district thing. It depends on what facilities are being funded.”