Senior units may strain fire service

Department official concerned with boom in retirement homes

Half of calls for elderly

Advises buildings to offer on-site medical coverage

February 15, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A developer's plans to build a 265-unit retirement community along Bennett Road in Eldersburg will further strain the area's already taxed fire and ambulance services, fire officials say.

The development is part of a boom in retirement home construction in South Carroll, creating a burden for the volunteers providing emergency services, said Bobby Ray Chesney, chief of the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department.

"The more of these developments you build, the more you are taxing our ability to service them," said Chesney. "Any facility with a large population of elderly needs on-site medical coverage. You can't keep on putting sticks in the ground without planning what you are going to do for the people moving in."

Nearly 300 units for the elderly are planned or under construction along the Liberty Road corridor. Another 100 are already occupied. These are in addition to numerous retirement communities, such as Fairhaven in Sykeville, and nursing homes in the area.

School crowding has led to calls for a halt to residential development in South Carroll, the county's most populous area with more than 28,000 residents. Developers have switched from subdivisions to communities restricted to buyers age 55 and older.

The latest development is from Howard County-based Altieri Homes, which plans to build 73 townhouses and eight four-story condominium buildings. To proceed, the project needs approval from the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals; the site's conservation zoning allows retirement homes as a conditional use.

Greig Altieri, vice presi- dent of the company, which has built several of the neighboring homes, said he envisions an upscale community with some units selling in excess of $200,000.

"We went to the neighbors and told them what we planned," he said. "We are not trying to hide anything, and we are not going to devalue what is there."

For Catherine Dodson of Bennett Road, the Altieri retirement community "is a ploy to get around the county's adequate facilities regulations on schools. I don't see a strong market for so many of these retirement homes in South Carroll."

For Chesney, it will mean more work for volunteers handling one of the county's largest volumes of emergency calls. The Sykesville department provides 24-hour coverage to a 47-square-mile area. It has two ambulances, 24 paid emergency medical technicians and nearly 200 volunteers.

Half of its nearly 2,000 ambulance calls last year were to elderly residences, and the numbers are growing, said Chesney. He frequently has asked that developments for the elderly maintain fully equipped ambulances on site.

"These developers build and leave," said Chesney. "They don't care who is left to baby-sit."

The strain on the fire department is one of a long list of complaints neighbors have about the new project, set for 27 acres on Bennett Road near Oklahoma Road.

"We would have no objection if these were houses like the ones we own," said Bonnie Strawbridge, who moved two years ago to Bennett Road, where $300,000 homes are on lots as large as 3 acres. "But this is opening the door to anyone and giving us a terrible problem with traffic."

Before Strawbridge bought her home, she studied local zoning and looked at the county's master plan.

Residents have also seen the developer's detailed maps and site plans and they have heard promises of quality construction, grading and landscaping.

"We are all skeptical of promises from a developer," said Dodson, who bought her Bennett Road home a year ago.

Such a high-density development will affect property values and marketability in the neighborhood, Dodson said. She and other neighbors, some who have paid as much as $500,000 for their homes, have organized and financed the opposition.

No one expected the unplowed farm fields along Bennett Road to remain vacant, but they didn't foresee 265 homes, Dodson said.

The county master plan, created in 1977 and now being revised, shows a 61-acre parcel, owned by J. Daniel Phillips, that could have at most 65 single-family homes. But Carroll's zoning allows for conditional uses such as a retirement community, as long as there are no adverse effects on a neighborhood.

"The standards for conditional use say a project cannot do damage to the rest of the neighborhood or affect its orderly and planned development," said Michelle M. Ostrander, an attorney representing some of the neighbors.

The Board of Zoning Appeals, which has scheduled a hearing Feb. 25 on the project, could rule in favor of Altieri and pave the way for construction of four times the planned number of homes on less than half the Phillips property.

"This development would quadruple the planned housing density," said Ostrander. "Four-story buildings are totally out of character with the neighborhood. These are the highest buildings in Eldersburg and certainly higher than anything in the surrounding area."

Residents also point to traffic problems. But Altieri said a traffic study shows the roads are adequate for the increased volume.

The builder has agreed to spend about $1 million to construct a portion of Monroe Avenue to Bennett Road. But the new road would not connect to an existing section of Monroe, which now ends at Oklahoma Road. That connection would come only as more land is developed, probably several years from now. When the project opens, all traffic from the new community would spill onto Bennett Road.

The decision will fall to the county Board of Zoning Appeals, which has a long history of favoring landowners.

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