In January, Santa Maria resident Don Spagnolo decided to appeal an affordable housing project approval to the City Council, paying a $353 fee in hopes of having the project reconsidered.

While the fee was far from cheap for Spagnolo at the time, he was shocked to hear that the cost of an appeal like his to the City Council will increase this summer to $6,517, with other city fees similarly skyrocketing.

In addition, an appeal to the Planning Commission will increase from $329 to $3,440, and an appeal of a Code Enforcement violation will increase from no cost to $353, according to the fee schedule. Fees can be waived, but at the discretion of the council. 

"The $320-something took six of us to each pony up around $50," Spagnolo said of his January appeal. "The fees have to be reasonable. That seems prohibitive." 

New fees for 240 city services, set to take effect July 1, were approved by the City Council last month after 15 years of delayed cost recovery in Santa Maria. The goal, officials said, was not to be prohibitive to residents but to bring in $1.69 million in additional city revenue while simultaneously lowering costs covered by taxpayers. 

Some fees, like recreation costs and business permit applications, will remain more or less the same, according to the fee schedule. However, some residents say the new price of making an appeal or requesting a development permit is exorbitant. 

Urban Planning Concepts president Laurie Tamura, one of several members of the business community who spoke up about the increased fees, said she wished consultant Revenue and Cost Specialists, which developed the recommended user fees, had included the community in the process more. 

"I think the community, including business owners, small restaurants and hotels, are all going to be impacted by these fee increases. They should participate in how these fees are increased over the years, and that didn’t happen this time," she said. 

Starting in July, an application for a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission will increase from between $2,000 and $3,000 to $7,900 and an application for a planned development permit will increase to around $8,700.

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When it comes to time extension requests for projects, something Tamura said is commonplace, developers' costs will increase from $280 dollars per request to $1,420 for a project approved by city staff and to $4,485 for a project approved by the Planning Commission or City Council. 

City staff confirmed in April that Revenue and Cost Services, LLC had not involved members of the development community in the process of formulating fee recommendations. However, the public was invited to a series of fee studies after the council received recommendations. 

"We did have the workshops and there was comments that the [Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce] and Ms. Tamura wanted to talk, and we did meet with them and discuss their comments," city Finance Director Mary Harvey said. 

Despite the apparent increases, some fees will not be as high as they could have been. After receiving user fee recommendations in February based on the staffing and hours spent on each service, the council decided on April 20 to reduce all recommended fees by 50%.

This brought down costs like the original City Council appeal fee of $12,707 to the current $6,500. 

However, under the council's decision, the new fees will only last a few years before being raised again, with the goal of full cost recovery by 2026. Councilwoman Gloria Soto pushed back against the decision to gradually increase fees, advocating for the city to rip off the bandage in one fell swoop. 

"I still don't quite understand where the 50% came from. We had an in-depth analysis where we had qualified consultants come in and do a study on our user fees," Soto said. "Each year that we decide to postpone increasing fees to the full amount, that’s more dollars that ultimately we are falling behind on." 

In the next round of fee increases, the council requested that an additional committee with stakeholders like developers and homebuyers be allowed to provide input, something Tamura said she appreciates.

To view the costs of new fees in the city, visit cityofsantamaria.org.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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