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G. James Benoit

P.O. Box 74
Crownsville, MD 21032


February 5, 2008

A Tax District for Odenton Town Center
By Mark R. Smith
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The Business Monthly

There's a quandary in Odenton these days concerning the development of the long-discussed town center.

That's nothing new, but the current issue is this: garnering the $30 to $40 million needed to build the infrastructure, including roads, electricity lines, and water and sewer connections to jumpstart the project - which was initially proposed about 40 years ago.

So, how to generate the funding? Some say designate a special, voluntary tax district. That would pertain to the core of the town center, an approximately 240-acre site known as "The Turtle," which is bounded by routes 170, 32 and 175, plus the Historic District next to the MARC station on the south side of Route 175.

For that to occur, two-thirds of property owners inside "The Turtle" would have to petition the county to make the request. At that point, the county council would approve the tax district - or not. Then bonds would be floated to generate the funds to build the infrastructure.

With the Base Realignment and Closure influx looming, the viability of the idea promises to be a hot topic at the Greater Odenton Improvement Association (GOIA) meeting to be held on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Odenton Fire Hall.

Just Asking

A tax district, "as a mechanism to get infrastructure in place, was originally included in the Odenton Town Center plan in lieu of having developers pay for it," said Jay Winer, president of A.J. Properties in Odenton, which is involved in various projects in the center.

But there are two important questions to ask about the plan, said Winer. "The first is, 'Why can't the county just pay for the infrastructure if it's so important?' And the answer is because there are technical and budgetary constraints. Remember, the county has already spent $13 million on the West County Library, then $7.5 million more to initiate Town Center Boulevard.

"Secondly, the county wants to know why the developers don't just pay for it all. That's long been the county's mantra," he said. "That often happens if there is a single site. But people forget, with such a big project with numerous owners," that task becomes much more complicated.

At present, the next step is to pinpoint the cost of the Odenton Town Center infrastructure, then tax it accordingly. "Once everyone involved knows what the cost will be, then there can be a decision, knowing the current tax rate and what can then be done to improve the area during the next 30 years," he said.

About the Locals
Given the four-decade wait to build the town center, Dave Tibbetts, president of the GOIA, said, "It's now or never," for the project.

Tibbetts said the GOIA "is in favor of the town center and recognizes that there has to be some funding mechanism for the infrastructure. But we are also aware of and concerned about the potential for economic hardship on the moderate and low-income residents and small businesses in that zone, notably along the old side streets on the north side of Route 175, where some people still want to live."

So while the organization is against implementing the Odenton tax district, he acknowledged that the town center infrastructure needs to be in place. And soon.

He has another idea of how to make that happen, citing nearby Crofton as "an example of a successful special tax district that meets the needs of its residents and has a quasi-government of its own and elects it town council."

Tibbetts said he remains "hopeful that we can work something out that is acceptable to all of the parties," while noting that Odenton is "one of the bigger towns in Maryland" with a population of more than 20,000. He feels its growth could eventually lead to its incorporation, a move that would also encompass newer subdivisions Seven Oaks and Piney Orchard.

Volunteers Only

"A little peculiar." That's how Jamie Benoit, the county councilman for District 4, deemed the varied land ownership in Odenton Town Center. "There's one big land owner, The Halle Cos., and a lot of people who own a lot of small parcels," estimating that number to stand at around 50 owners in "The Turtle," all told.

Benoit echoed Winer's observation that "no land owner, including Halle, could afford to build the entire infrastructure necessary for the project." And their potential solution is the tax district.

"Once we defined the requirements, my strategy was to get all of the landowners together so they could put all of their resources into one pool of money," he said, "because as a group, they could do what none of them could do alone."

And Benoit stressed that "no one has to participate in the tax district, whatever their reason, who does not want to do so.

"This effort is 100% voluntary," he said. If anyone opts to not participate, "We would plan to draw the district around them. If they want to pay the money later to join, that's fine, too.

"That's where there the disconnect arises in some quarters," Benoit said. "The people who jump in will pay more property taxes, but I see that as a good thing [because of what they get back]. Some of the property owners think the town center plan will hurt them in some way. That's not the case. Their land values will skyrocket when we do this, as will their assessments."

But he knows that the concept is very difficult for some people to grasp. "If an elected official comes along with a creative way to solve a problem, people can be distrustful since it's unnatural for them to see government being creative," he said.

The Future Is Now

From the county's perspective, Bob Hannon, CEO of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., said that the jurisdiction is "very conscious of the variety of ownerships and their interests, including the 12 owner-occupied residences" in the core area.

"We're trying to establish what area of support would be necessary to advance the special tax district," Hannon said. "There is no desire on the county's end to bring any resident into this process unless there is a direct benefit to them, and we are working to find the right balance among the interested parties."

He noted that the effort is part of the county's General Development Plan as well as the Odenton Town Center plan. "It was supported by the community, so we are following the community's lead. We hope to bring this issue to a decision within the first quarter of 2008."

And Winer applauds those efforts. "The county is now trying to do the proper homework and I am happy with the process, since they're working with the community," he said.

However, time is very much of the essence. "The window is closing on having enough time to prepare for the growth we are bracing for [due to BRAC]," he said.

But if two-thirds of the core's property owners don't sign their names to the petition to get the tax district for Odenton Town Center off the ground, an alternative will be necessary. One idea could be a tax increment financing (or TIF) district, which draws boundaries around specific properties to be improved. Then tax assessments rise due to those improvements and the revenue hikes are used to pay off the debt service on bonds.

Calling that approach "less comprehensive, since you can't deal with the overall infrastructure that way," Winer called the tax district "the only mechanism we have to give ourselves buying power to build the necessary linkage.

"It would allow us to compete with the large parcel owners in a place where we also have numerous small property owners," he said, adding, "If there's a better way to generate the revenue we need, I'd like to know what it is."

 
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