A proposed 12-unit apartment building for senior citizens off Main Street in Ellicott City was rejected last night by the Howard County Historic District Commission, which called the facility's design "inappropriate" for the quaint historic town.
Although the controversial public facility had the approval of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, Historic District Commission member Richard Williams said the "serene and beautiful spot" the building would stand on should maintain its rustic, small-town appeal.
"I cannot in good conscience allow this type of structure on that particular location," Williams said before the panel's vote.
Conceived by the county's Department of Housing and Community Development, the Tiber Hudson Senior Housing apartment building would have 12 units for senior citizens 62 or older and with yearly incomes between $9,000 and $25,000.
County housing authority officials proposed building the apartment complex in historic Ellicott City so that affordable housing would be available throughout the county and not only in densely populated areas like Columbia and new Ellicott City.
Affordable housing for older residents is a problem in Howard County, which has a large and growing population of senior citizens, whose incomes have declined since retirement and who are being forced to look elsewhere for reasonable rents.
But the proposal faced strong opposition from residents and business owners in historic Ellicott City, who decried everything about the building -- from its size and scale to its location.
Richard Taylor, a resident, said the apartment building was proof that "size does matter. This building stands at three stories. It would end up looking like Moby Dick in a swimming pool."
Sally Bright, a resident of the historic district, said a three-story apartment building would not have fit in a few hundred feet from the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, which was built in 1790, and other historic buildings.
"You can't put such a big building in such a small space," Bright said. "It would be like Cinderella's stepsister trying to put her foot in her glass slipper. It just doesn't fit."
And, Bright said, she "resented someone standing up here assuming that I'm against senior housing. That just isn't true."
Leonard Vaughn, executive director of the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development, called the commission's decision to reject the proposal disappointing.
"I think this was an ideal location," said Vaughn. "But the real issue is that any place you choose to put public housing, people can always say they can find a better location. It's the `Why in my neighborhood?' syndrome."
Vaughn said the housing commission will now decide whether to appeal last night's decision in Howard County Circuit Court.
Three years ago, Vaughn's team originally proposed that the Tiber Hudson Senior Housing project be built on a site that spans the Tiber River south of Main Street to Old Columbia Pike and Hamilton Street.
The Historic District Commission approved the county's plans for that location, but its decision was appealed in Circuit Court. The proposal has remained on the court's unscheduled docket.
The problem was solved recently when the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation -- which holds an 85 percent interest in the Main Street site that was rejected last night -- traded properties with the county Housing Authority.
The Ellicott City Restoration Foundation is now looking to develop the Tiber River property.
The Historic District Commission cannot rule on how an owner can use a site. It does rule on matters of size, mass and architectural design of buildings to ensure the property complies with the area's character.
The site on which the proposed Tiber Hudson building would sit is zoned for historic commercial use, which includes single-family homes, apartments, condominiums or town homes, commercial businesses, restaurants or retail shops.
Joe Tieperman, the Historic District commissioner, conceded that some of the residents' concerns about the design of the facility were valid, "considering the historic nature of Ellicott City."
"It wasn't appropriate," he said, adding that the "bulk size of the one structure would absolutely dominate the area."
After many protesters spoke out at the May 6 meeting, "the presenters kind of got a message that the design and the bulkiness" was not liked, Tieperman said. "This is a major project in this area and it's a little bit out of the norm. It's very, very large especially compared to anything else in historic Ellicott City."