Planning fees collected by the City of West Palm Beach are on pace to break a boom-time high as developers pitch new projects in a reviving economy.
Nine months into the city’s fiscal year, planning fee revenues have nearly surpassed all of 2012 and could grow to more than $359,450, a 31 percent increase from last year, and the highest since at least 1998.
City officials attribute the growth to a streamlined system to process plans and a healing marketplace.
“We haven’t seen this type of activity for a long time,” said city Planning Director Rick Greene.
Planning revenue in West Palm Beach spiked in 2001 to $334,524 and again in 2005 to $320,872. The recession saw fees sink to $171,525 in 2009.
While planning fees are no guarantee a building will go up, they are an indication of things to come and the confidence level in local business, said economist William Stronge, a professor emeritus with Florida Atlantic University and a fellow at the Economic Development Research Institute in Palm Beach County.
“The housing industry and the development industry are coming back,” Stronge said. “It still has a way to go, but it’s certainly coming back.”
Projects credited with increasing West Palm Beach’s planning fees include the Palm Beach Outlets, which is replacing the old Palm Beach Mall, the Jefferson at Palm Beach Lakes, a 280-unit apartment complex near Executive Center Drive and Congress Avenue, and Mizner Lakes, a 548-unit complex behind the Home Depot on Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.
A new 119-acre development of rental villas, a hotel, and 100 single-family homes proposed for land that is now the President Country Club’s north golf course has also added to the planning fee revenue.
Projects that submit plans must still go through a public vetting and the permitting process before construction begins. And it’s always possible financing will fall through.
Still, it’s not just West Palm Beach that has seen signs of a building rebirth.
Boynton Beach Director of Development Nancy Byrne said she prefers to look at building permit fees over planning fees because they represent projects actually starting construction.
So far this year, Boynton Beach’s building fees are up to $1.6 million and are expected to surpass the $1.8 million collected in 2012. The restart of housing projects put on hold during the recession and new apartments going up at Renaissance Commons contributed to the revenue.
“We think next year will be even better,” Byrne said.
But it’s not likely to top 2006’s building hey day in Boynton Beach when $7.6 million in building permitting fees were collected as projects mushroomed along Federal Highway.
Royal Palm Beach Village Manager Raymond Liggins said his town’s recovery started last year with a 57 percent increase in building permit fees between 2011 and 2012. He’s estimating another 16 percent increase this year.
“We are definitely at the cusp of a change,” Liggins said. “All our revenues prove that.”
Liggins credits two weighty projects for much of the increase _ the discount grocer Aldi’s new $50 million distribution center and regional headquarters at State Road 7 and Okeechobee Boulevard, and the new American Tire Distributors building at State Road 7 and Southern Boulevard.
Jupiter also saw a revival last year with planning fee revenues jumping 65 percent from 2011 to $247,039. Fees are expected to be lower this year, coming in at about $195,000.
In Palm Beach Gardens, planning fee revenue so far this year stands at $140,981, not far off last year’s total of $165,513. But it’s likely to get a boost as Florida Power & Light moves through the approval process to build a corporate campus and research center north of PGA Boulevard between Interstate 95 and Alternate A1A. The plan, which would develop the 86-acre property over 20 to 30 years, passed the first of two city council votes Tuesday.
North county commercial Realtor Rebel Cook said dips in planning fees don’t reflect the current buying market. High sales this year could result in a boost in planning fees in 2014.
“We’re seeing a lot of people looking at vacant land again,” she said. “The last nine months have been crazy. It’s the busiest I’ve been in years.”
Cook said a cumbersome planning and permitting process is still be a barrier to progress in many municipalities.
“If they simply made it easier and quicker, you could generate the tax revenue faster. It’s just that simple,” she said.
That’s been a priority for Greene in West Palm Beach.
“We’re trying to increase our level of responsibility and have a more user-friendly process for people doing business here,” he said.