Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

TOP STORY >> Growth slows in Cabot, but not Ward or Austin

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

In the past 20 years, Cabot has doubled in size to its current population of about 22,000. Although the school district, which is the draw for many of the new residents, is the largest employer in the area, home building is the biggest industry. But in 2007, residential construction in Cabot was at the lowest point it has been in five years. Meanwhile in Ward and Austin, which also are in the Cabot School District, building is booming.

In Ward, seven of the newest housing developments have provided homes for the estimated 1,000 new residents who have moved in since the 2000 census. In 2000, Ward’s population was 2,582. Now it is estimated at 3,500.

Austin Mayor Bernie Chamberlain estimates her city’s population at 1,800, triple the number of the 2000 census. “Austin is growing,” Chamberlain said. “People don’t want to live in town, but they want the Cabot School District. Besides, Cabot is running out of room.”

A Cabot committee made up of elected officials, bankers, business people, and representatives of the building industry will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. to begin looking for a reason for the decline in Cabot. Specifically, it is their task to determine if an impact fee on construction is to blame.

The impact fee is supposed to raise money for infrastructure improvements needed because of growth. But if the committee determines that the impact fee has stifled residential construction, the city council could vote to make the six-month moratorium on the fee permanent.

Alderman Terri Miessner, who volunteered to chair the committee, said Tuesday that the committee could meet as often as twice a week to sort through the many issues that could have a negative impact on the building industry in Cabot including the economy, the lack of room to build and the impact fee.

“I think it’s going to be interesting. I think there are going to be some heated discussions,” Miessner said. Information available at Cabot Public Works shows that residential construction is down, but it started going down before the impact fee went into effect in November 2006.

Two years earlier, 2004, was the boom year for home construction in Cabot. Building permits for 500 houses were issued that year, compared to 288 in 2002, 374 in 2003, 419 in 2005, 400 in 2006 and 183 in 2007, which was after the impact fee was passed.

However, of the 400 permits issued in 2006, 122 were in November, just before collection of the impact fee was started, for houses that would be built in 2007. Although residential construction has slowed, commercial, which increases the city’s tax base, is on the rise.

Nine commercial permits were issued in 2002, 25 in 2003, 20 in 2004 (the boom year for residential), 60 in 2005, 58 in 2006 and 67 in 2007.

In addition to Miessner, the members of the committee are Alderman Eddie Cook, Mayor Eddie Joe Williams, Bill O’Brien, Cary Hobbs, Dewey Coy, Clint Skiver, Mike Bernardo, Kip Boudry, Larry Biernackie and Ricky Hill. The committee has until May to determine whether the impact fee is responsible for the decline in residential construction or if other factors such as the economy are to blame. The moratorium on collecting the fee that the council approved in November 2007 was for six months only.

If the council hadn’t imposed the moratorium, the impact fee would have doubled from $1,272 to $2,196 on a 3,000 – 3,900- square-foot house. The fee is also scheduled to increase in 2008 and 2009. By the third increase, the impact fee on a 3,000 – 3,900- square-foot house would be $4,037.

On Tuesday, Norma Naquin, planning coordinator and office manager at the public works department, was gathering information for the committee. Bernardo had requested the building permits since the impact fee went into effect.

Miessner said she wanted a count of the building permits since the November moratorium on the impact fee to see if building has picked up. Nacquin said no one had asked her to compare the number of building permits issued to the number of occupancy permits to determine if fewer houses are being built because sales are down. But that is information she can provide with the documents on hand. “They haven’t asked for it, but I’ll give it to them,” Naquin said.