The county Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously approved a proposed 265-unit retirement community in Eldersburg yesterday, after finding the project would not detract from the character of the neighborhood.
"I don't think this development will create problems, and the demand is obvious," said board member Howard B. Kramer, a senior citizen who has looked in several states for a similar community. "This project will be upscale and an asset to the area. Any negative impact was not proven."
Altieri Homes, a Howard County developer, plans to build 73 townhouses and eight three-story condominium buildings on 27 acres on Bennett Road east of Route 32.
Approval came after a day and a half of testimony -- which began Friday and ended yesterday -- from traffic experts, marketing consultants and several neighbors who opposed the project.
"Marketability is not an issue," said board member Harvey Tegeler. "Whether this project is sold is between the developer and his bank."
Arguments based on aesthetics, strained emergency services and declining property values did not sway the board, he added. While the opponents' traffic expert predicted that increases would change the character of the road, those estimates were not significant enough to warrant disapproval, Tegeler said.
"We are disappointed but not surprised at the outcome," said Phil Bennett, who along with several of his Bennett Road neighbors had organized the opposition. "The height of the buildings will have a significant impact."
Although the opponents can raise any number of issues, "this application clearly meets the legal criteria for land use," said Clark R. Shaffer, attorney for the developer.
"Eldersburg has been master planned for major development for years," Shaffer said. "The infrastructure is there."
Approval is contingent on restricting the community to residents ages 55 and older and grading, landscaping and berms that would screen the project from nearby subdivisions. Any major changes in the site plan would send the project back to the zoning board for another review.
"We anticipate difficulties enforcing these conditions," said Catherine Dodson of Bennett Road. "We will be with the county every step of the way, making sure the county does its job. They have dropped the ball on other projects like this."
In an area zoned residential, retirement homes are a conditional use and must win approval from the zoning board. The project now enters a lengthy development review process and ultimately will go before the county planning commission.
Michelle M. Ostrander, attorney for the opponents, argued that the Bennett Road site was zoned for single-family homes and "is not suitable for densities this high." The project's size and scale are "totally out of character with the community."
"There is no way to transition from large [residential] lots to this," she said.
The developer found a supporter in Kathie Bibeau, a Sykesville resident who had come to the hearing to say Eldersburg needed housing for senior citizens.
"We want to downsize without moving to Florida," she said. "We like the country look here, and this villa-type housing is not available anywhere else. People want yards, and they don't want a high-rise condo right on a parking lot."
Opponents also argued that one entrance at Monroe Avenue and Bennett Road would be inadequate for 265 homes. The developer countered that the problem would be temporary.
Altieri Homes will spend about $1 million to build a portion of Monroe Avenue to Bennett Road. The county plans to build an additional segment of the road, which eventually would extend Monroe Avenue from Route 26 south to Route 32. Those improvements could begin as early as 2002, according to Carroll's capital improvement budget.
"There is no guarantee that road will be built in 2002," said Ostrander.
She asked the zoning board to consider the long-range plan for Eldersburg, the county's most populated area with more than 28,000 residents.
"This is the place to recognize that this project is wrong for this area," she said.