The fees would apply to development within Arcata School District boundaries | Map from SchoolWorks study

Everyone seems to agree that Arcata’s population is going to grow. The Arcata School District is wondering if it needs to update its two main campuses to accommodate a future enrollment spike. But at the moment, it doesn’t have the money to do so.

The district could start collecting developer fees, a one-time charge to builders of new homes and commercial buildings located in the school district, paid during the permitting process. That funding would be for updating and expanding schools to accommodate the new students who would be a direct result of new development. So, for instance, if a new subdivision brings a few dozen school-age children into the area, the local elementary school district would be ready to absorb them. 

Most school districts in California collect these funds, including Eureka City Schools and other local districts. Citing upcoming development in Arcata – like the Sorrel Place Project, Gateway Area Plan, and Cal Poly Humboldt expansion – Arcata School District Superintendent Luke Biesecker told the Outpost that the district has been considering collecting these development fees for a while. At the moment, there is no urgent need: In March, Arcata voters passed Measure B, awarding the district $12.5 million in bonds. But the idea did percolate to the surface at a meeting this week.

On Monday, the Arcata School District board considered a resolution to levy a fee of $3.11 per square foot of residential development and $0.50 per square foot of commercial development. If, as predicted, 375 new homes are built in the next five years, these fees would amount to more than a million dollars, according to a justification study the company SchoolWorks completed for the district. 

The few community members and builders who commented at Monday’s meeting said that the district would be asking too much.

“Developers will be forced to pass on the additional cost to homebuyers or tenants, further contributing to housing affordability challenges,” said a representative of Adams Commercial General Contracting. 

Kyle Boughton, owner of North Star Development, suggested that families would be pushed out of the district due to higher living costs, decreasing enrollment rather than increasing it. He also speculated that most new housing in Arcata will be rented to incoming Cal Poly Humboldt students who might not have school-age kids. 

The City of Arcata seems to be of two minds about the fee. “While the City has concerns regarding how this fee will affect much needed housing production, we also understand the need to ensure revenue to support critical programs and education,” Arcata Mayor Meredith Matthews wrote in a letter to the school board.

“The City requests that prior to your final consideration to enact a developer fee that you attend and share the District’s vision for this fee with the community at a City Council meeting. This opportunity would allow the District to explain why this fee is preferable to a bond/parcel tax measure, the necessity for the funds, the process that you will use to calculate and collect the fees and how you propose to communicate these transactions with the City to best serve the developers in our City.”

Sarah Kollman, a lawyer whose firm represents the North Coast Home Builders Association, suggested on Monday that the district’s intended use for the funds might be unlawful. This interpretation may be based on the five-year parameter of the SchoolWorks study, which identified the need to modernize existing facilities to accommodate a predicted 5-year increase of 55 students, rather than build new buildings. Kollman said that her understanding of the law was that development fees cannot be used for maintenance.

“The law around the imposition of developer fees is very clear, that developer fees cannot be used to address deferred maintenance and long-term maintenance items,” Kollman said. “For a school district, they have to be directly tied to increased student capacity and an additional level of service.”

Biesecker later told the Outpost that despite the SchoolWorks study’s time frame, the district is looking beyond the next five years. “Looking long-term, our concern has been mostly with the potential need for new facilities,” he said. 

On Monday, the board decided to table the item for now, with plans to consult legal counsel next month and attend a city council meeting in the meantime. School districts don’t legally need city or county approval to levy developer fees.

If the Arcata School District does ultimately charge a fee, it might enter an agreement with the Northern Humboldt Union High School District to split funds. If they did, builders would probably pay $5.17 per square foot of residential development and $0.84 per square foot commercial development, which is the maximum amount districts can currently charge for developer fees (this number adjusts every two years to reflect inflation).  

For now, no action. But that could change soon. 

“At some point I think the board’s serious about this,” Biesecker said on Monday. “But there’s a timing element, and knowing that it’s the right time for students and the community I think is important.”