Citing an increased need for economic development, the Wake County Commissioners voted 5 to 2 to amend the Unified Development Ordinance to eliminate a requirement for residential developers to preserve or fund open space.
Commissioners Ervin Portman and Betty Lou Ward voted against removing the ordinance.
The Recreational Land Area Contribution requires that residential developers allocate one-thirty-fifth of an acre per lot toward preserved open space or passive recreation. A payment equal to that can be made instead.
The funds are used by the county to purchase and preserve open space, but must be done so within three miles of the new development.
Commissioners called the tax inefficient because it has only preserved 154 acres of land and raised $1.7 million during the past 10 years. About $42,000 of which has been spent. The vacant properties are to be used for future greenways or other green-space.
They also noted that during the past 10 years the county has received about $91 million in voter-approved bonds to be used for open space. The county still has $20 million in bonds available to develop open space. .
The county has also partnered with local municipalities to use schools for recreation through the Community Use of Schools Program.
During a public hearing on the change Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee said that the keeping the ordinance in place was necessary because the funds can be used for preserving open spaces, but also for passive recreation, unlike the open space bonds that can only be used for open space and water quality.
“Every dollar we could spend on recreation is critically important,” he said. He argued that home values increase when open space and parks are located in residential areas.
Hutchinson said that part of the inefficiency of the ordinance is the three-mile requirement. He asked that there be more flexibility.
He wanted the advisory committee to be able to work with staff over the next to years to use the funds and come back then to discuss the ordinance. He also said the group would be comfortable with temporarily suspending the tax for two years.
“This is an opportunity to help the development community to get back on its feet,” Tim Minto executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh Wake County, told the commission during the hearing Tuesday.
He said that $90 million is already spent on preserving open space and if there is a problem with the bond restrictions then work could be done to remove those restrictions and open up the funds.
He said that eliminating the tax would help more developers come into Wake County to do business.
Commissioner Joe Bryan said that this is a classic example of setting priorities. While preserving open space is important, he said that today the county’s priority should be job creation and economic development.
Commissioner Ervin Portman called removing the ordinance a mistake.
“As we continue to become one of the fastest growing counties in the nation,” he said, “we continue to have adequate parks and open space.”
He added that it would give Wake County an unfair advantage to attract developers over municipalities, like the City of Raleigh, that have similar ordinances on the books to fund open space.