Oak Knoll victims call building fees unfair

An Oak Knoll fire victim has asked Mayor John Stromberg to look into refunding some of the fees the city has charged him and other victims as they rebuild their homes, he said Wednesday.

Several residents of the 11 homes that burned in the Aug. 24 fire believe the fees of several thousand dollars are unfair, because they are simply rebuilding — not constructing new developments, said fire victim Dan Thomas.

Thomas, owner of Circle T Construction, is rebuilding his family's home and another on the block that burned in the fire, Ashland's worst in at least a century.

"There's no reason for them to be charging me these development fees," he said. "We're not putting in any additional sewer lines, or parks — we're just replacing an existing dwelling."

Stromberg said he researched the issue after talking with Thomas and learned that only the City Council has the authority to waive the fees.

Stromberg and City Councilman Greg Lemhouse decided several months ago to check in with all the fire victims to see how the rebuilding process was going, and that's when Thomas brought up the fees, Stromberg said.

"Generally speaking, people are having a positive experience in terms of rebuilding, but this did come up," he said.

Thomas said he and at least one other victim will ask the council to refund the fees at an upcoming meeting, if Stromberg doesn't present them with another solution in the next two weeks or so.

"I figured I'd give him a month, and that was a couple of weeks ago," Thomas said. "If nothing comes of that, I'm going to say I want to get this on the City Council agenda and I want to address it."

Thomas is requesting that the city refund the community development fee and engineering fee the victims paid when they were issued their building permits. Thomas estimated the fees cost him between $3,000 and $4,000 total.

The community development fee is 1.1 percent of the value of the permit, which is roughly the cost of building the home, and the engineering fee is .75 percent of the value of the permit, said Bill Molnar, the city's community development director.

Molnar estimated that most of the fire victims will pay or have paid at least $2,150 in community development and engineering fees, which are leveraged on all building projects in the city.

Six of the 11 homeowners already have paid the fees, because they have been issued building permits, he said.

The community development fee helps fund the city's Community Development Department, paying for staffing and resources. Between 35 percent and 45 percent of the department's time is spent answering questions about building projects and helping developers, Molnar said.

"This is a way to reduce the cost to the general fund and put more of a cost on the users, people that are doing development, whether it's a single family home or much larger," he said.

"The money is going to pay for that proportion of the department that deals with development applications."

During the first five months of this fiscal year, through Nov. 30, the city collected about $63,000 in community development fees, Molnar said.

The engineering fee goes to the city's Public Works and Engineering Department, to help pay for the time city officials spend answering questions and inspecting developments to ensure they're adequately connected to city infrastructure, such as sewer and water pipes, he said.

The city did not require the fire victims to pay system development charges, which provide money for new infrastructure, including water and sewer pipes, storm drains, parks and roads, Molnar said. The city did not have the authority to charge the victims those fees, which would have amounted to approximately $7,500 each, because the infrastructure is already in place in the neighborhood, he said.

"Those were waived, because there were 11 existing homes there, so the capacity on major systems was already there," Molnar said.

The council discussed the community development and engineering fees at a meeting immediately following the fire, but decided not to waive the fees at that time, because city officials believed the victims' insurance companies would pay the fees, Molnar said.

Thomas said most of the victim's insurance companies are giving them a lump sum to rebuild their homes and that they may come up short.

"It is the money that's an issue," he said. "And, you know, after going through this myself, nobody should be paying those fees whose house burned down."

He said whether the insurance companies pay for the fees isn't really the issue.

"My big issue is — whether the insurance pays it all or not — I'm not sure the city has the right to charge planning fees to existing residents," he said. "It's not up to the city to make money off the insurance. That's not really the right attitude."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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