Parking lot halts senior center plans Firefighters refuse to allow expansion of old firehouse on land

County rejects restrictions

Deal didn't include atrium, volunteers say

September 09, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Plans to turn the old firehouse on Ellicott City's Main Street into a senior center were scuttled yesterday when firefighters refused to allow construction of an expansion to the building on its parking lot.

"It was a shock because we looked forward to going to the firehouse," said Velva H. Howard, a member of the Ellicott City senior center that has met for the past decade in temporary quarters in the basement of Emory United Methodist on Church Road. "It seems like we are at the bottom of the totem pole."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker met with the seniors yesterday and told them he could not accept Ellicott City Volunteer Firefighters Inc.'s restrictions on the county plan to use the first floor of the building as the senior center and the second floor for commercial space.

Ecker promised the first floor of the two-story building to the seniors 11 months ago after Ellicott City Fire Department moved to its new building on Montgomery Road.

The old building's parking lot is owned by the firefighters, who agreed to give the lot to the county if the building were used as a senior center.

County officials proposed using the 4,000-square-foot second floor of the firehouse for a restaurant or shops, extending the Main Street commercial district.

They accepted a plan by developer Peter Ruff in March that called for building a 4,250-square-foot atrium in the parking lot space to draw customers to the second floor.

"The idea was to have businesses [that would be] supported by the seniors," said Marcia McLaughlin, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The firefighters objected, saying the lot should only be used for parking for the seniors, pointing out that many would need disabled-accessible parking close to the building.

"The deal was as long as it was used for parking for seniors, we would let them use the lot," said John Klein, chief of the volunteer Fire Department. "Somewhere along [the way] Howard County decided it wanted additions."

Ecker said yesterday he did not learn of the firefighters' objections until after accepting Ruff's proposal -- and that he decided he could not accept the restrictions on use of the parking lot.

"I can't [bind] the future county executive to just keep it as a senior center," said Ecker, who will leave office late this year. "Who knows what is going to happen? I think any county executive would be foolish to do that."

For the seniors who meet in the church, the announcement was one more disappointment in their 10-year effort to move out of the church.

During that time, they have been trying to find a first-floor location with easy accessibility in the historic district.

"We were only supposed to be here temporarily," said Carla Buehler, the center's director. "The basement's steps are not safe for the seniors."

Ellicott City has the second-largest seniors population in the county, and the fifth-largest center.

Said Dorothy Biller, a center member, "We feel like there is nothing we can do about it."

Ecker said county officials plan to put the seniors in the Howard County public library branch off Frederick Road by 2001.

In the meantime, they will try to find a temporary location.

He said that decision -- and future use of the firehouse -- will be made by the next county executive, who will be elected in November.

Some seniors said they are not too optimistic they will move to a new site.

"I'm wondering if that is another pipe dream," Howard said.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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