The Hayden administration may support a relaxation of Baltimore County development and zoning regulations to allow residential homes for the elderly to take in more than three people without being treated as new developments.
The proposal would allow operators of senior-assisted housing who do not plan any major alterations to a house to take in up to 15 people without having to go through the county's development process and without obtaining a special zoning exception.
If the change is approved by both the administration and the County Council, it would bring the county into line with state regulations governing the county's Senior Assisted Housing Program. So far, the program has been stymied in finding any homes in the county for elderly people who need supervision, but not nursing home care.
County officials who met recently to discuss the proposed changes cited the example of Brenda Walker, who has a large home in Catonsville now zoned for use as four apartments. She has been trying for one year to get through the county's complicated development approval process, she says, to get permission to house more than the four elderly people who now live there.
If she does get development approval, she still must face a public hearing for a special zoning exception. If granted, the exception would allow her to house up to 15 people.
Frank Welch, county community development director, says it makes little sense to put needed providers of relatively inexpensive care for the elderly through so much regulatory grief, especially when they, like Walker, are proposing no physical changes to their buildings.
County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly met recently with Welch and county planning, fire, environmental, public works and permits and licensing officials. Kelly instructed them to move forward with the idea, which is now in the preliminary discussion stage. Once a policy change is mapped out, it must be approved by County Executive Roger B. Hayden, and then by the County Council.
Walker says none of her residents drive and her staff members live at the home, in the 2200 block of Pleasant Villa Ave. If allowed to take in more residents, she says, she expects traffic would be minimal and probably less than would occur if she rented out all four apartments in the historic mansion.
Walker also owns a senior-assisted housing facility in Baltimore, in the 3300 block of Alto Road in Windsor Hills.
Margaret Zimmerman, a neighbor of Walker on Pleasant Villa, says she opposes the home's expansion. "There are many young families with young children here and this is a commercial enterprise," Zimmerman says, adding that traffic has increased on the dead-end street even with only four residents in the home.
"Catonsville has the highest number of nursing homes of any area in the county," she says. "They ought to spread things out a little."
Steven McCleary, treasurer of the West Catonsville Community Association, says he distributed a survey to 100 residents of the neighborhood, and got back 70 replies. All expressed opposition to the expansion of Walker's home even though more than half were residents in their 60s or older. "It's not that we're against old people," he says, "we just don't want a commercial venture."
Grace Smearman, housing project manager for the state Office on Aging, says the average monthly cost of living in a home like Walker's is $1,200, compared with $3,200 a month at a nursing home. Just as important, she says, is the homelike atmosphere of the assisted-senior homes. "It's a wonderful alternative" to a nursing home, she says. "It makes the living environment so much nicer."
The homes typically provide supervision 24 hours a day and all meals and laundry services. But they do not offer medical services.
Smearman says there are homes in 14 of Maryland's 24 subdivisions, but none in Baltimore County -- which has a fast-growing population of senior citizens, and a great need for housing for them.
County Department of Aging officials say the county has 136,931 people over 60, about 20 percent of the county's total population. That number is expected to increase to 144,000 by the year 2000. The fastest growing age category within that range is seniors 70 and older.
Smearman says that since the state program began in 1986 the number of senior-assisted houses in Maryland has grown from seven to 113. The state helps to pay living expenses for poor elderly people, which saves the state money by keeping them out of nursing homes. She says most residents had been living in the communities where the homes are situated.
Each home is inspected at least four times each year by local officials, she says.