Senior condo proposal assailed Residents fear crowding of roads, water contamination

January 18, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Where some see the benign image of 200 senior citizens living out their retirement on 58 acres in bucolic western Howard County, others see contaminated ground water and crowded roads.

Residents of Glenwood who oppose the Villas at Cattail Creek are expected to turn out in force Saturday at a Board of Appeals hearing on the special exception needed by developer Donald Reuwer -- one of Howard County's most prolific developers -- to build the 116-unit condominium complex for senior citizens.

"What's this going to do to my water?" asked Paige Fowler, 43, who lives on Willow Birch Drive in the current Cattail Creek development. "Are they going to install a traffic light there [at the Route 97 entrance to the development]? No, they won't. They're just adding this to an already congested traffic pattern.

"Western Howard isn't for condominiums."

Opposition surfaced last month when about 75 Glenwood residents crowded the first Board of Appeals hearing on the issue, their testimony revealing the fears of many living along Route 97 about continuing growth in the area.

The condominium proposal is not the only object of the residents' ill will. They also are angry at the prospect of more of the single-family houses that attracted many development opponents to the once-rural area. They include residents of the Cattail Creek development, 47 houses that began going up in the early 1990s.

Opponents fear that more growth will add cars to busy roads, crowd schools and possibly affect well-water supplies.

County planning department figures show that about 135 houses are in the planning stages in nine different developments off Route 97.

"They're totally changing this county," said Joe Carta, 62, whose house is next to Cattail Creek. "This used to be rural, beautiful."

According to county Department of Planning and Zoning projections, by 2005 population in an 8-square-mile area along Route 97 south of Interstate 70 will increase about 30 percent, from 2,380 to 3,351.

Single-family houses are expected to increase by more than 30 percent during that same period, from 768 to 1,120, according to the projections.

Whether this represents unacceptable sprawl or acceptable growth depends on who is asked.

County planners say that the 200 to 300 houses built annually in western Howard are 10 percent of the 2,000 to 3,000 constructed countywide.

They also note that in that 8-square-mile area around Route 97, nearly 25 percent of the land is protected under the county's agricultural land preservation program.

"Those [western Howard] increases would only be a hiccup in Columbia," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director for the Department of Planning and Zoning. "This is still a relatively small number. There's a lot of open space out there."

But Bob Buckler, president of Warfield Estates Civic Association, said, "The roads are already crowded. There aren't any stoplights. Route 97 simply can't handle the traffic, especially if they build this [seniors] complex."

State Highway Administration statistics show traffic on Route 97, south of I-70, has increased by about a third since 1987, from 7,775 cars a day to 10,450 in 1995.

Buckler and others contend that the condominium complex -- which could be built in western Howard only under a special exception as housing for the elderly -- will worsen the traffic problem. They argue that the residents will not be content to drive around the development on the golf carts that will come with their condos.

"I see people getting in their Mercedes on top of the hill and trying to drive [along route 97] into the next entrance," Buckler said. "That curve and road are already dangerous."

Residents are also worried that the septic tanks needed for the condominiums -- and all the other new houses -- will put too much sewage into the ground.

Susan Gray, a Highland slow-growth activist, said ground water was her main concern.

"This simply won't be spread-out enough," Gray said of the sewage. "It seems very risky."

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which runs the nearby Triadelphia Reservoir, is drafting a letter to the Department of Planning and Zoning expressing concerns about the development's impact on the reservoir.

Mike Sevener, the WSSC's principal environmental engineer, said the development might create too much runoff and suggested that Reuwer consider some low-cost changes in the septic system and ways to limit sediment flow during construction.

Sevener also suggested reforestation of nearby land after construction.

"We just want to make sure Howard County and the developer are aware of our concerns," Sevener said. "We're making suggestions to enhance the reservoir's protection."

But officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment, which analyzed a study by Reuwer's engineers, said they see few problems with the septic system.

"At this point, there doesn't seem to be anything that will interfere with it," said Jay Prager, chief of the on-site sewerage and water supply division of MDE.

A draft permit hasn't been issued, but Prager predicted the septic system would be approved.

Opponents of the condominium complex argue issues other than growth. They claim, for instance, that the $250,000 price tag will make the condos too expensive for elderly residents on fixed incomes.

But real estate agents dispute that contention.

Pat Hiban, an associate broker with Re/Max Advantage Reality in Columbia, said units in a similar project off Route 99 in Woodstock were "selling like hot cakes."

"It's geared toward seniors and empty nesters who don't want to move into Columbia or move to Florida," Hiban said. "It sounds like the [Cattail Creek complex] is similar."

Real estate agents also pointed to another trend: When baby boomers move to Howard, they often find homes for their elderly parents nearby. The Villas would satisfy that market, they said.

"I definitely see a demand for that," Hiban said of the planned Cattail Creek senior complex.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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