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Big change approved in fees paid by developers of housing and businesses in San Diego County

It’s a problem that’s been around in San Diego County for years: How to build enough affordable housing, but do it in a way that doesn’t add to the climate crisis. KPBS reporter John Carroll says the County Board of Supervisors tackled that complicated, controversial issue today.

The Board of Supervisors voted to change the way developers are taxed with the aim of reducing carbon emissions.

Board chairman Nathan Fletcher opened discussion of the issue with a statement nobody could disagree with.

“This has been a vexing issue the county has been grappling with for quite some time," he said.

The issue was what’s known as VMT — Vehicle Miles Traveled.

Last month, the SANDAG board voted down a proposal to tax drivers directly. Right now, developers are taxed based on the number of trips generated by a house or a business.

RELATED: SANDAG transportation plan forces debate over costs of climate action

The proposal the board approved on Wednesday will instead tax housing developers based on how many miles would be traveled by the occupants of new homes and businesses.

The Building Industry Association of San Diego said the change will drive the cost of building houses, including affordable housing, through the roof.

“Major fees for projects starting at $30,000 per unit, going up as high as $500,000 per unit, or even more. So that’s what is a real problem for us and more importantly for the residents of the back country," said Matt Adams, Vice President of the BIA.

The Board of Supervisors had no choice but to tackle the issue. A bill passed nearly a decade ago in the California legislature demanded it. The legislature did leave the counties space to tailor the law to their own needs.

The advocacy group Climate Action Campaign supported the most restrictive measures.

"That is a tool to again disincentivize dangerous, unsustainable sprawl development," said Madison Coleman, a policy advocate with the Climate Action Campaign.

But Coleman also said it’s about more than limiting sprawl in the back country. She said the measure incentivizes affordable housing to be built where it should be built.

“So infill affordable housing areas near transit and job centers," she said.

But Matt Adams said the proposal will just drive a stake through the heart of affordable housing.

“That’s what we have a real problem with because it’s nearly impossible today to produce middle income housing. If you assess these type of fees from 30,000 to a half a million, it’s never gonna be created," he said.

The Board voted 3 to 2 to approve the new VMT rules. Supervisor Jim Desmond made a prediction — that lawsuits are sure to follow.

A new transportation study guide will be developed within 30 days. It will then go out for more public comment and the whole thing will be finalized within six months.