Neighbors balk at plan for houses

21 small homes for seniors wouldn't fit in, critics say

Property value concerns

Opposition comes as population of elderly is growing

January 07, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The new houses would not likely attract late-night parties, skateboard rallies or garage bands - not with seniors living in them. But residents along Montgomery Road in Elkridge are nevertheless opposed to a retirement community planned for their area.

In what has become a recurring scenario in Howard County, where the elderly population is surging, homeowners along the busy byway are fighting a proposal to build housing for "active seniors" adjacent to Rockburn Branch Park.

Opponents say the 21 small, detached homes, which would sell for about $200,000 each, would be out of place in a neighborhood dominated by subdivisions of large homes in the $350,000 range.

"We just don't want little tiny houses over there," said Debra Higdon-Buono, who recently moved into a new development across the road from the disputed lot. "It's like slamming a trailer park across the street. I don't care who's living over there, whether it's 90-year-olds or first-time homeowners, as long as the size fits in with what's around it."

The dispute over the development, proposed as Rockburn Woods and scheduled for a county Planning Board hearing Jan. 18, is yet another episode in the county's effort to expand senior housing options in the area.

County officials and senior community leaders agree that Howard is facing a shortage of housing for the elderly, but retirement home proposals are routinely met with opposition - from neighbors and county officials concerned about key details of developers' plans.

In the case of Rockburn Woods, the county Department of Planning and Zoning has recommended against the proposal because it says the 7-acre lot isn't big enough to accommodate 21 detached houses. The Brantly Development Group's proposal, planning and zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. found, does not leave enough room for overflow parking and recreational activities - features that should be included in a development for active retirees.

"It isn't large enough to provide much of a community - it'd be more of a cul-de-sac with elderly people living in it," he said last week. "It's a little bit of a `10 pounds in a 5-pound bag' situation."

Richard B. Talkin, the lawyer representing Brantly, said last week that his clients are revising their plans to respond to some of the county's concerns, but he would not elaborate. Neighbors have suggested that Brantly consider building seven large Tudor-style homes containing three senior units each, but made to look like nearby single-family dwellings.

Property values a concern

Larger houses would fit in better with the surroundings, neighbor Dale Medairy said, but he still feared the development would depress his property values because the homes would cost less than his.

"Just the idea of having senior citizens' homes is going to depreciate everyone's property value ... because senior housing never appreciates," he said. "It only pulls down the value of homes around it."

Neighbors also worry that the development won't be used exclusively by senior citizens. What's to keep its residents from taking in younger relatives, from selling to younger owners, or from passing the homes on to their descendants when they die, they ask.

Such concerns are unfounded but common around the county, Rutter said, and one of the county's challenges is to better educate residents so they realize, for instance, that "these [aren't] low-income elderly from the city that we're going to move out."

Far from it, in fact. At about $200,000 apiece, the Rockburn Woods homes are intended for affluent, healthy retirees who want to scale down from larger, more expensive homes or move closer to their children.

Such "active seniors," county officials say, don't need on-site living assistance or other safety-oriented features that come with assisted-living complexes. But they do look for conveniences such as ground-floor master bedrooms, which could come in handy as the occupants age.

Howard officials expect a rapid increase in demand for the units as baby boomers retire, but they say there is relatively little to offer them at the moment.

Other proposals stalled

A proposal for an 89-unit active-senior complex in Hickory Ridge stalled in court four years ago. Developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr.'s plan for 116 high-end townhouses for seniors at the Cattail Creek Country Club in the western county also landed in court, and has since been scaled down to 25 large, detached homes for retirees.

State officials predict the number of county residents older than age 65 will increase from about 17,000 today to about 47,000 in 2020. According to Reuwer, the county must do everything it can to retain those senior citizens - especially the more affluent among them.

"These are people you do not want to lose from the tax base in the county. They don't have children in the schools, they're high-income earners and they're a low stress on the community," he said. "The county needs to take affirmative steps to attract these people."

Higdon-Buono doesn't doubt that it is in the county's interest to attract affluent seniors. But if the county is serious in that mission, she says, it should solicit more appealing proposals than the ones Brantly has put forth - more spacious homes, with yards for barbecues and a clubhouse for dances.

"I'm not saying they don't need it," she said. "But the way they're saying they want it, I don't feel that's what they're trying to do here."

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