A developing anxiety

Growth: Fear of crime and concerns about infrastructure prompt Severn residents to fight a proposed apartment complex.

January 30, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

In 1969, when Severn in western Anne Arundel County was mostly farmland surrounded by groves of sweet gum trees, neighbors heard murmuring about a townhouse complex coming to the area.

Those who remember hearing about Pioneer City then say developers billed it as a quiet, affordable community to house Fort Meade personnel and Washington commuters.

Gladys Twardowski wasn't thrilled about it, but she said neither she nor her neighbors voiced organized objections. After all, the area had changed little since the post-World War II years, when her mother-in-law, Alice Twardowski, bought 14 acres of farmland there as a respite for her children from inner-city Baltimore.

"It didn't sound so bad, back then," Twardowski said.

But Pioneer City sounds plenty bad to its Severn neighbors now. Drug dealing, robberies and assaults have been rampant in the low-rise apartments off Jacobs Road. Although they've learned to sleep though the wail of sirens, neighbors complain that the staccato of gunshots awakens them.

If her mother-in-law were alive to see Severn today, Gladys Twardowski said, "she would be cussing in Polish, I can tell you that."

Neighbors now are working to stop another proposed apartment complex -- Severn Overlook, a 256-unit development planned for 19 acres of woodland that is one of the few remaining buffers between Jacobs Road homes and Pioneer City.

Since October, when neighbors first saw a sign introducing Severn Overlook -- posted a block from where a boy was found shot to death two weeks ago -- they've been campaigning against it. About 30 residents met recently with County Councilman Bill D. Burlison to voice their opposition to the project. Almost as many showed up in Annapolis when the developer, Owings Mills-based Village Development Group Inc., presented sketches to planning and zoning officials.

Like the Twardowskis, many residents have lived in Severn long enough to remember what happened when they said little about high-density housing cropping up in their back yards. In addition to Pioneer City, clusters of townhouses have sprouted up along Jacobs Road. Placid names like Stillmeadow and Spring Meadow belie the rough streets within that Anne Arundel County police know all too well. Pioneer City -- now named the Orchards at Severn -- is part of the state's HotSpots anti-crime initiative.

"It's overdeveloped," said Stanley Twardowski Sr., a retired bricklayer who built his home in the early 1950s. "We've got apartments coming out of our ears, really."

Paramount among neighbors' concerns is that Village Development Group won't be able to command the upscale rents of $800 to $1,000 for two- and three-bedroom units. In a letter to the county zoning department, Reece Heights Drive resident Dorothy Brothers and four other neighbors expressed their concern that the new units would soon mirror those in Pioneer City, many of which are vacant and run-down.

"We have no reason to doubt the developer's good intentions to build and market these units," the letter states. "However, we believe ... that this will not happen and this development will soon become an extension of the area that had caused the community these problems." The letter went on to predict Severn Overlook would have a "devastating effect" on the community.

Village Development Group owner Steven Weinstein said residents shouldn't project Pioneer City's problems onto his developments. With the rapid growth predicted for the Odenton area and the addition of Arundel Mills shopping mall, he said the region's economic base can support the rents he seeks. He questioned the assumption that an upscale development would promote further degeneration. Instead, he said, it would improve the area by attracting upwardly mobile workers.

"It seems they want to fight any growth in the area, and Pioneer City is the rationale for all of it," he said of the Severn residents. "Well, don't knock me because of Pioneer City. Fix the problem."

Weinstein said he offered to show Severn residents his apartment communities in Glen Burnie and Frederick. "I have nothing to be ashamed of in my communities," he said.

But neighbors have other concerns. They say the area lacks the infrastructure to support more high-density development. Jacobs Road, the only proposed entrance for Severn Overlook, has no appreciable shoulder: Long, muddy tire tracks, left by school buses passing each other on the narrow street, mar the lawns of houses on Jacobs Road.

Runoff poses another concern. Judy Twigg, a cousin of the Twardowskis' who lives in the area, said the increased construction over the years has exacerbated Jacobs Road's drainage problems. It's particularly bad at the home of the Twardowskis' son, Stanley Jr., who raised his family next door to his parents.

"When it rains," Twigg said, "their back yard is just like a lake."

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