In this post, which is the second segment of a three-part series, we will highlight the various ways that local governments facing fiscal challenges have turned to imposing fees related to the administration of their zoning, subdivision and other land development ordinances to generate additional revenue. Such fees are authorized by law and can be justified on the basis that those who derive the benefit from a land use application should bear the cost to review that application, rather than the taxpayers. However, many municipalities on Long Island are imposing new administrative review fees, or increasing the amount of existing fees, that require applicants to pay amounts that are not reasonably commensurate with the cost of the services performed. Excessive administrative review fees are subject to legal challenge as an illegal “back-door tax.”
Administrative Review Fees
A local government, as part of its regulatory authority, may establish fees for the payment of the expenses to administer a regulatory program. Pursuant to such authority, governmental entities typically charge fees in connection with applications associated with land development to recoup the costs involved with the review of said applications and associated plans to insure that the proposed work complies with all applicable laws, ordinances and regulations. However, while municipalities are authorized to impose review fees, the courts have made clear that the fee amount that can be charged is limited to that which is “reasonably necessary” to undertake the regulatory review involved. In applying the “reasonably necessary” principle, courts do not require exact congruence between the fees charged and the government’s cost to review an application; but there must be some rational underpinning for the charges levied. In other words, the review fees charged must be commensurate with the actual expense of the application being processed and should not be exacted for revenue-generating purposes or to offset the cost of general governmental functions.
Nassau County’s GML § 239-f Review Fee
In 2015, the Nassau County Legislature adopted Ordinance No. 176-215, which pertains to fees charged by the Nassau County Department of Public Works (“NCDPW”). According to the ordinance, certain fees charged by Nassau County “no longer cover the costs required to administer and process the services for which they are charged.” Therefore, the ordinance states that it is “necessary to fix such fees so that they cover the administrative costs associated with the operation of services of the departments.”
Among the fees imposed by Ordinance No. 176-215 are those charged to review applications for building permits, pursuant to General Municipal Law (“GML”) § 239-f, that are forwarded from the various town, cities and villages. GML § 239-f grants the NCDPW the authority to review applications for building permits for developments having frontage on a Nassau County road, but only insofar as the proposed building, including curb cuts or other means of access, may be related to the County road. Where the application is for a development with an anticipated construction cost of $25,000 or more, the initial review fee is $1,500. However, if the anticipated cost of construction is greater than $250,000, the developer is required to pay a fee equal to .75% of the estimated construction value in addition to the initial review fee.
While there clearly is authority for the NCDPW to charge reasonable administrative review fees to process building permit applications for developments that front on a County road, these fees are vulnerable to legal challenge because the amount of the fees charged, at least for developments costing $250,000 or more, is not commensurate with the cost of the services performed. Nor do they bear any relationship to the development’s impact on County roads or other facilities. To illustrate this point, the fee charged to review a building permit for a 150,000 square foot membership warehouse store (such as a Sam’s Club, Costco, or BJ’s), which is typically a simple concrete block building with inexpensive fixtures and finishes, is likely to be significantly less than the fee charged for a building of the same size and constructed on the same site for use by a retailer that elects to construct its building with better and more expensive materials, fixtures and finishes. Presumably, both retailers’ uses would have the same impact on the adjacent County roads and facilities, but the retailer whose building will cost more to construct will be required to pay more to have its plans reviewed by NCDPW. Aside from being patently unfair (and perhaps illegal), the NCDPW’s review fee structure encourages developers to construct buildings using inferior, less expensive materials.
NCDPW’s building permit review fees, at least when they are based on the cost of construction, appear to be vulnerable to attack because they are not calculated based on the NCDPW’s cost to review an application, or the impact that a proposed development may have on County facilities. Instead, they are based on the amount of the investment that a developer chooses to make in the site. Moreover, according to the Nassau County Legislature’s Review of the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget & Multi-Year Plan, these fees also appear to be imposed for revenue generating purposes and to offset the cost to operate the NCDPW. Indeed, while the NCDPW revenues have generally decreased since 2015, the County’s current budget projects nearly a 300% increase in revenue from GML § 239-f building permit review in 2017.
To date, the NCDPW’s building permit review fees have not been challenged by developers, who instead simply pay the fees and capitalize them into the land value. However, these increased costs are being passed on to consumers who ultimately pay more for housing, goods and services. While these fees are helping Nassau County balance its budget, they are also contributing to the high cost of living that is driving people away at an alarming rate.
In the next and final segment of this series, we will look at real property recording fees, which have increased significantly in Nassau and Suffolk Counties in recent years. These fees are being used as yet another revenue-generating device that some consider to be nothing more than an illegal tax.