Supervisors OK appeals fee increase

Despite pleas from residents who said the cost is already too high, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday raised the price for appealing land use decisions made by county boards and commissions, although they did not boost them as high as their staff recommended.

The board increased the fee from $616 to $850. The Planning and Building Department had sought to raise it to $1,000.

But even the current fee of $616 is too high, many speakers said.

“Only a certain class of people can buy a ticket on that train,” said Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club.

The question pitted the county’s need to raise money against the threat that they will freeze out people who want to challenge a decision by making the appeal too costly.

Some speakers said there are already cases where people just give up on appeals because it costs too much.

But Kami Griffin, acting planning director, said “We haven’t significantly changed the appeals fees in years, and years and years.”

Chairman Bruce Gibson agreed that the cost of appeals is “a question of access to due process.”

Nonetheless, he proposed, and his fellow supervisors went along with the increase.

Several speakers also protested what they called a double standard with appeals to the Coastal Commission, which does not charge an appeals fee. The fees were outlawed by the Act that created the Coastal Commission in 1972.

“Those of us who live inland” are subsidizing coastal appeals, Eric Greening of Atascadero said.

Under the law, if a local government charges a fee for an appeal, the case bypasses local government and goes directly to the commission.

Only the state Legislature can change that law, and Gibson suggested that the county ask its lobbyist to look into the feasibility of changing it.

An appeals fee is the price an applicant pays if he or she is dissatisfied with a government decision and wants to appeal it to a higher board like the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors.

The appeals fee was the only one that drew public comment Tuesday as the board took aim at more than 3,191 county fees for service.

It increased 236 of them, reduced 280, deleted 581 and added 51. It left two-thirds of its fees — 2,043 - unchanged.

County Administrative Officer Jim Grant said he expects the fees to bring in $800,000.

Grant and Supervisor Adam Hill took pains to explain the difference between fees and routine services funded through property taxes.

Fees, Grant said, are value-added and involve a choice by the fee payer that goes beyond a routine government service. For example, he said, fees exist for county golf courses, and playing golf is a choice. Adopting an animal from the shelter is a choice, and those who do so should pay the fee.

If a resident chooses to use county services to build an addition to his home, he said, he should pay a fee for that; otherwise all county taxpayers would be subsidizing an expense he chose to incur.

Hill added that the county General Fund receives only 24 percent of property taxes. The rest goes elsewhere, most of more than 60 percent to schools.

The fee schedule can be viewed in its entirety in a staff report on the county Web site.

Other county fee updates

Among the other fee changes approved are:

Twenty-seven of 79 fees will increase, with the average boost being $23. A pet-shop permit fee will rise from $275 to $360 a year.