Developer's plan for retirement home draws fire

June 21, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

John Erickson takes a philosophical view of the opposition to his building a retirement complex on the eastern edge of the Green Spring Valley.

"It's a political decision to allow or not allow us to build there, and whatever Baltimore County's decision is, that's fine," he said. "But the biggest issue is the fear, not the reality."

Mr. Erickson, founder of the $205 million Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, has an option on more than 95 acres of cornfield and woodland on the southwest corner of the intersection of Falls and Greenspring Valley roads.

Purchase is contingent on whether Mr. Erickson's development company can get county approval for the proposed 2,500-resident development, a rigorous and long process, which will begin July 15 at a public hearing before the county Planning Board. The development company is asking the county to extend water and sewage lines across Falls Road to the acreage.

Green Spring Station, on the east side of Falls Road and across from the valley site, already is highly developed. Johns Hopkins Hospital announced last week that it will build a $9.8 million outpatient center there. The center will open next June.

The valley property, zoned agricultural, also would have to be rezoned for high density building to accommodate the huge project Mr. Erickson is planning on about two-thirds of the property.

The other third is wetlands and flood plain, and wouldn't be developed by Mr. Erickson. Two streams on the land feed into the Jones Falls, which runs across the southern part of the property.

The county master plan designates the property as a "no planned service" area for water and sewage, presumably to protect the serene and lush Green Spring Valley from development.

Mr. Erickson says the master plan is "in error" because it doesn't provide for the large retirement complexes he says are needed in the county. He is basing his rezoning request on that omission.

The proposal has aroused vigorous opposition from valley residents, who fear the retirement complex -- and its accompanying sewer and water lines -- will open the valley to development.

Margaret Worrall, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, which has stood guard over the county's valleys for 30 years, said: "No one is saying the facility is not needed. Our point is, agriculture is still a large part of the economy of the county, and it demands few services.

"There are better places elsewhere that already have the zoning and services," she said. "It's a land use issue, not a social issue. We're not taking this lightly. This is a critical piece of property."

Curiously, Mr. Erickson has been a dues-paying member of the council -- at $50 a year -- since 1988. He, his wife and four children live near Ridge and Falls roads, about four miles north of the proposed retirement site.

Mr. Erickson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the developable properties in the county, doesn't understand why residents fear his project. "The next five parcels to the west are in agricultural preservation," he said. "I wouldn't even consider trying to place this project in the middle of the valley."

It has been reported to the state's archaeological division that prehistoric artifacts had been found on the property. "Our files show that five or six projectiles from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago were found on or near that property," said the state's Dennis Curry. "Also some glass shards and pipe fragments, but that's not uncommon for that area. There's no indication that we've investigated the site. I don't know if there's any significance in these findings."

Desirable location

Mr. Erickson says the property's proximity to the Beltway and Interstate 83 makes it attractive for a retirement complex, but mainly, he says the area needs a community like Charlestown.

"The Lutherville-Cockeysville-Towson-Timonium area needs a place for middle-income people to retire to," he said. "We get many letters and calls from people asking us to please build in the Towson area, near where they live. There is no other place available just like this property in that part of the county."

He also is negotiating on two properties in White Marsh, but not necessarily as an alternative to the valley site.

"We would do one or the other, or both, depending on what happens with the process," he said. "If we have to wait four or five years to operate on the valley site, OK."

The complex at Charlestown, which has about 2,000 residents and will have 2,500 when the complex is completed next spring, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has a waiting list of about 1,000. About 70 applications are received each week.

It is called a "continuing care retirement community," which means a resident can live independently as long as that person is able. Various levels of nursing care are available.

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