Editorial: Sugar Grove opened Pandora’s Box, and here are the results

By on May 17, 2012

The proposed Shodeen development in Elburn, referred to as Elburn Station, hit a roadblock Monday, and to be honest, that might not be a bad thing.

Elburn Station is a proposed transit-oriented development that would add more than 2,000 residential units, as well as commercial properties, in an area ranging near the Elburn train coach yard, spanning from Route 38 to Keslinger Road.

For a community the size of Elburn, this is a massive development that could nearly double the size of the village once it is complete.

The plan ground to a temporary halt on Monday when the issue of school impact fees came up for a vote—or, well, actually the lack of a vote. Village Board member Ken Anderson moved to accept an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the Kaneland School District that would have put in place a fee schedule to pre-determine a fee amount paid per individual property, to be paid to the School District to offset the costs of adding school children to the district.

No one else on the Village Board seconded Anderson’s motion, so the measure died on the floor, and no agreement is currently in place.

The reason this may not be a bad thing is that it has brought to light—with a real-world example—something we warned the community about back in November 2011: that the lack of a Kaneland-wide Intergovernmental Agreement that sets equal school impact fees among all of the villages in the district will cause massive problems in the future.

Well, the future is here, and the problems have begun.

These problems only exist because developers can now use extra negotiating leverage to lower school impact fees by playing one municipality off of another.

Village Board member Bill Grabarek unknowingly stated the exact problem during Monday’s meeting when he expressed his concern with the IGA as it existed at the time of the failed vote.

“I don’t want to see a failed development because it’s cheaper to build in Sugar Grove,” Grabarek said.

Due to that fear, fees designed to offset the cost of educating new students as they move into the district are now on the negotiating table, and the ability to educate Kaneland’s children become just one of many points of debate as developers strive to increase their profit margin and villages strive to broaden their tax base. Yet, whether a child lives in Maple Park or Sugar Grove, Elburn or Kaneville, the cost to educate them in the Kaneland School District remains the same.

The risk of the fear articulated by Grabarek—that a developer would choose a neighboring village because it is cheaper to build there—would not exist if all of the municipalities inside the Kaneland School District had a district-wide IGA that sets the same schedule of impact fees.

The rationale for having a uniform set of impact fees throughout the district was laid out by Kaneland Superintendent Jeff Schuler, also in November 2011. One bullet point from his document stated, “A Kaneland education costs the same for all students, regardless of where they reside. Deviation from Dahlstrom’s tables by any municipality impacts the School District’s ability to provide an appropriate education to all its students.”

So why was there focus placed on a district-wide IGA in November; why did we write about its importance on Nov. 18, 2011?

That is the time in which the village of Sugar Grove announced that it intended to not extend the existing district-wide IGA past Jan. 1, 2012.

For years, all of the municipalities inside the Kaneland School District had agreed to the same fee schedule in order to avoid this very problem. As the end of 2011 approached, and the time came to renew and extend the IGA, Sugar Grove elected not to do so.

That decision opened the Pandora’s Box that, in our decision, should be closed before a development of the size of Elburn Station is approved by any municipality within the Kaneland School District.

If that Pandora’s Box remains open, this issue will continue to come up, over and over again, as developers see a way to pit villages against each other. Ultimately, we will all witness a race to the bottom in terms of school impact fees. What this means is, of course, that existing residents will then be forced to subsidize the educational costs created by new construction.

Elburn Village Attorney Bob Britz on Monday urged village officials to finalize the IGA with Kaneland before passing an annexation agreement with Shodeen.

At a minimum, we strongly urge the Elburn Village Board to take that advice.

Yet, we urge all of the village boards in the Kaneland School District, as well as the School Board, to go one step further—rebuild the district-wide IGA and do whatever it takes to bring Sugar Grove back to the table. Without this action, the problems hinted at Monday will repeat regularly throughout the district, and the negative impacts will be felt for decades to come.