Council fights bill on homes

December 15, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer Staff writer Ed Brandt contributed to this article.

In theory, none of them was against old people. But some Baltimore County Council members made it clear yesterday that they don't want the elderly in their back yards.

"I don't want to raise a family of little kids between two houses of old people," Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, said during a tense debate over a bill to ease restrictions on assisted-living facilities for the elderly.

Although Baltimore County has the highest proportion of elderly residents in the metropolitan area, its restrictive zoning laws make it almost impossible to set up assisted-living group homes for seniors who need help with everyday tasks but don't require the expensive medical care of a nursing home.

The bill debated yesterday would allow a facility with up to 15 residents anywhere in the county if the building housing it needs no more than a 25 percent expansion. A larger expansion or a new building would require a special zoning exception.

The measure was sponsored by 6th District Republican William A. Howard 4th of Fullerton.

Currently, all such homes in Baltimore County require a special zoning exception -- a long, expensive process. One potential home operator in Catonsville, Brenda Walker, has spent two years and $35,000 to obtain the exception and still hasn't received certification.

As a result, Baltimore County is the only large subdivision in the state without assisted-living homes, although 140,000 of its 700,000 residents are over the age of 60.

However, some council members worried aloud during their informal work session yesterday that greedy entrepreneurs might foist dozens of old people on their residential neighborhoods. The hostile tone of the discussion was similar to previous debates over low-income housing.

The opposition was led by Catonsville's Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, one of two senior citizens on the council. The other senior, Democrat Donald C. Mason, D-7th, did not speak during the debate.

Mrs. Manley has opposed the Catonsville home, which is on a dead-end residential street and was already large enough to accommodate 15 people.

"I do have a problem imposing that number of people in a residential setting" without the special zoning exception, she said.

Mr. Riley said he was against such "institutions" in residential neighborhoods.

An increasingly upset Dr. Philip H. Pushkin, director of the county Department of Aging, pointed out that the homes are already permissible but have been kept out only by the length and expense of the zoning process. "It's ludicrous to fight against this," he said.

County officials sought to reassure skeptical council members that extensive state and federal regulation of the homes will prevent any abuses and safeguard residents.

Council members began bargaining over the number of elderly residents that would be acceptable. Pikesville Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, suggested lowering the maximum number of residents allowed without a zoning exception to nine instead of 15, while Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, suggested 10 as a compromise to save the bill.

"Let's try to move it [Monday]," Mr. Ruppersberger said, adding that a two-week delay might be in order if no agreement is reached by Monday night's regular council meeting.

The strength of opposition took the bill's advocates by surprise, Mr. Howard said, indicating that a compromise is likely. The opposition's attitude appears to run counter to trends in elder care.

While the council was debating, members of the Maryland Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging were discussing the need for such facilities at a conference at the Edenwald Retirement Center yesterday.

Anne Harrington, a consultant on elder care, told the group that the emphasis has turned from institutional living to assisted living in home and group home environments, and in special homes that feature community living.

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