Sykesville retirement facility's building plan angers neighbors

Residents say they had little warning of expansion

April 25, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Fairhaven Retirement Community's plan to build a $3.5 million headquarters has several of its Sykesville neighbors clamoring for the complex to keep its distance.

Episcopal Ministries to the Aging, Fairhaven's parent company, angered homeowners along Springfield and Central avenues recently when it announced plans to build corporate offices adjacent to their residences.

"Would you want an office building in your back yard?" asked Debbi Lamb of Central Avenue. "I have no problem with Fairhaven as neighbors, but not next door."

The proposed project has spawned community activism by neighbors. Cynthia Campbell and Constance Higgins, newcomers to local politics, are running for two of the four available Town Council seats, promising to be more responsive to residents. They will face six others, including four incumbents, on the May 4 ballot.

"Wouldn't a good neighbor have told us they were planning a big office building?" Higgins asked.

Fairhaven, home to 418 elderly residents, sits on about 300 acres and dominates the northern end of the town of 3,500. A vacant 3-acre parcel across from its main entrance on Third Avenue is the proposed headquarters site. The organization's offices are scattered throughout Fairhaven.

"They have 300 acres behind the complex; why do they have to build right here?" said Donna Crismer of Springfield Avenue. "We will have parking lots, slamming doors, noise from air conditioners and drain-off."

Much of the surrounding land is unsuitable for the 23,000-square-foot building, said Amber Dahlgreen Curtis, attorney for Fairhaven.

"Substantial portions of other lands in and near Sykesville have forestry, wetland, access, water and sewer and natural gas issues that make them unsuitable locations," Curtis said.

Campbell, who has lived across from Fairhaven for 12 years, said the tree-covered lot marks the northern entrance to town.

But the town does not own the property. People who buy homes near open land take a chance on development, said Councilwoman Debby Ellis.

"Wouldn't we all like to keep a green area?" Ellis said. "But this is not our property."

Fairhaven was built about 23 years ago on farmland donated by a local couple. It has added Copper Ridge, a nationally recognized residence for people with impaired memories.

Lamb moved to the town shortly before Fairhaven was built. She knew the dairy farmers who left their land to the church.

"The Beasmans left the farm to the Episcopal Ministries so this could be a retirement home for the poor," Lamb said. "Seventy-five percent of the people in Sykesville could not afford to live there."

The headquarters site was chosen for its proximity to Fairhaven and Copper Ridge, Curtis said. Public water and sewer and good road access also figured into the decision, she said.

"Several other towns asked us to locate the headquarters there, but we wanted to stay here," Curtis said.

Fairhaven employs about 500, 40 of whom will be transferring to the new offices. Because those employees are working at Fairhaven, the project will not increase traffic, Curtis said. Plans call for six connected cottages, none more than two stories high.

Because the property is within town limits, it must be rezoned from residential to business for the project to proceed, a change the town Planning Commission has recommended.

As a nonprofit organization, Fairhaven is exempt from paying town property taxes, but it has offered Sykesville an annual payment in lieu of taxes of about $10,000.

The Town Council had its first inkling of residents' opposition at a public hearing April 12, when about 30 people crowded into the Town House.

"The council is picky about what's done downtown, but they aren't bothered about an office building going next to houses," Lamb said.

Many complained about the notification: a sign posted on the property for 10 days. They also said they had little information about the plans.

"The survey teams were the first clue something was going on," said Campbell. "The building will take up the entire property, and then they want to put a sediment pond across from it."

The residents have a long list of questions prepared as the public hearing continues at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Town House.

"This is not a few disgruntled people," said Higgins. "This is the majority of the town's tax base. If we don't want something, they should listen to us."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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