Howard County's booming elderly population projected to increase by 259 percent in the next 24 years is causing friction in some neighborhoods as county agencies and developers scramble to create housing for senior citizens.
Six housing developments for the elderly that are under construction or being planned around the county have drawn the ire of residents who fear they will cause an increase in traffic or hurt property values.
Most advocates for the elderly see the same reason for such opposition. They say residents will protest almost any new development, for the elderly or not.
Others say privately that opposition to housing for the elderly is rooted in elitism and a backlash against the county's increasing elderly population.
Opponents of the projects disagree.
"We don't want to be painted as hysterical or anti-old-people," said Howard Mindek, who opposes a planned 89-apartment project in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, where he lives. "We're not snobs. We're nice people."
As the county's population ages, such friction could increase.
According to the state Office of Planning, the county has about 20,500 residents 60 and older, about 10 percent of the county's population.
The population in Howard is expected to increase by 25 percent in the next decade, while the number of residents 60 and older expands even faster, by about 70 percent.
Deborah Louis of the county's Office of Aging said the main factors causing that growth in the older population are:
The construction of Columbia, which began three decades ago, attracted many younger residents who are growing older.
Columbia is attractive to the elderly from other counties because of the existing housing for them, usually near senior centers or commercial strips.
Residents confronted with taking care of their aging parents are moving them to the area to make that easier.
That adds up to tremendous pressure on the housing available in a county where the average price of single-family homes and townhouses is about $200,000, local officials say.
"Howard County doesn't have enough housing to meet all of the need," Dr. Louis said.
There are eight housing complexes for the elderly in Howard, not including nursing homes. Mainly in Columbia, they consist of apartments or group homes offering assisted living for the frail or independent living for the healthy.
The six projects planned to open by 1998 two in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village and one each in Jessup, Elkridge, Ellicott City and Fulton would almost double the amount of housing for the elderly.
But those projects the most in the works at any time in recent memory would provide only about 300 new units for perhaps thousands of elderly residents who might want them, said Leonard Vaughan, executive director of the county's housing commission.
And even that relatively small number of new units has drawn intense opposition.
At a recent hearing before the county Board of Appeals, for example, about 70 residents signed up in opposition to a zoning exception for the proposed complex facility in Hickory Ridge. And about 40 signed up to speak last week against a development in Ellicott City.
Opponents say that they don't want to keep the elderly out of their neighborhoods but that they fear apartment complexes built for the elderly would threaten the "uniqueness and integrity" of their communities.
"No one has anything against old people," said Mr. Mindek of Hickory Ridge village. "They have nothing to do with it. This is a development issue."
The proposal that has him and his neighbors upset comes from the Orchard Development Corp.
Hickory Ridge neighbors say the community already has its share of projects for the elderly. They include Harmony Hall Retirement Community, which opened in 1982, and Sunrise Assisted Living, which plans to open a 79-unit complex at the end of this year.
Orchard's proposal has drawn stiff opposition because it would be a large apartment building on 18 acres of residential property. The other operations are on commercial property set back from neighboring homes.
People looking for single-family homes in the neighborhood "would see a bunch of nice homes that sell for $300,000 to $400,000 and then they see a three-story building," Mr. Mindek said. "They'd go elsewhere."
The battles are being fought before the Board of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over zoning exceptions.
Four of the six planned projects for the elderly have received or are seeking special exceptions to permit construction in areas not zoned for housing for the elderly or for apartment buildings. ,, One of the six also needs a variance, a county-sanctioned change in the number of units it is permitted to develop on a site.
Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county's Planning and Zoning Department, said requests for special exceptions are not unusual. In general, special exceptions are allowed unless residents successfully argue that a development would have an adverse impact on the neighborhood.