Seniors housing proposal praised

Some developers say zoning change could raise appeal of the communities

March 25, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Changing county zoning rules to develop larger senior communities would create the critical mass necessary to make them attractive places to live, said several developers of age-restricted housing for active adults.

"I think that the competition that's out there for senior housing demands a level of amenities or service you can't get with a smaller facility," said Donald R. Reuwer Jr. of Land Design and Development, which has built several age-restricted housing communities in Howard County.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, presented legislation to the county Planning Board last week that would increase from 20 to 50 the minimum number of units required for a senior development to be eligible for special, liberal zoning rules.

The board voted, 3-1, to recommend approval of the change. Merdon hopes to introduce the bill in the County Council at its next meeting, April 7.

In 2001, the council approved zoning rules that allow higher-density housing specifically for people ages 55 or older. The law was designed to keep senior citizens - and their taxes - in Howard County rather than having seniors moving elsewhere to retire.

"The council had good intentions when enacting the original legislation, but when you see it go into effect, it wasn't what was intended or desired," Merdon told the Planning Board.

His amendment was prompted by the efforts of Friends of Font Hill, a group of Ellicott City residents who banded together to oppose a proposal by Kimberly Homes LLC to build a 30-unit senior townhouse complex on a little less than 7 acres near residential neighborhoods off Frederick Road.

Patrick Crowe, a leader of the group, testified before the board that proposed setbacks for the townhouses are not sufficient to avoid changing the character of existing neighborhoods.

Increasing the minimum number of units also increases the amount of recreation and open space that must be incorporated into a project, making these amenities more useful, Merdon explained at the hearing. Under the current legislation, a 20-unit complex could have a tiny, 400-square-foot community center.

The Font Hill residents have testified at hearings that the community center design for that community was not much larger than the living rooms of the townhouses. A hearing in that case will continue at 7 p.m. Monday.

Changing the regulation would reduce the amount of affordable housing for seniors, said David A. Carney, attorney representing Kimberly Homes.

"I don't think I have a dog in this fight," he said, because Kimberly Homes and other projects that had meetings with the community by the amendments filing date would be grandfathered in under the old restriction.

Carney testified that the increased minimum would reduce the number of possible locations for senior housing in the more urban eastern third of the county, where water and sewer service is available.

Merdon testified in response that 169 parcels would be eligible countywide, with 80 in the water and sewer service area.

Carney also argued that the requirement that larger developments be built would reduce the number of sites that might be available for affordable senior housing. "Those parcels large enough for 50 units, those units are going to be expensive," he said.

Reuwer disagreed.

"Everything I've ever done [shows] costs go down based on number of units," Reuwer said. "I don't see how a smaller community could be affordable. With a smaller community, you can't achieve quality of life that active adults are looking for." He said that included programming such as shopping trips and other entertainment.

Reuwer said many developers are attracted to senior housing because it is exempt from the ability to bypass the schools test of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), which prevents construction of housing in crowded school districts.

However, "Chris [Merdon] is saving a lot of developers from themselves," he said. "When senior housing is done for the wrong reasons it's not going to be a good fit for the properties or the surrounding communities."

L. Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development, agreed. His company has constructed two senior communities in Howard County, both rental and for sale, he said.

"When a project is under 50 units it's too small to be viable as a senior community," he said. "A 20-unit project is simply just a subdivision that has a age restriction."

But Armiger, chairman of the National Council on Senior Housing through the National Association of Home Builders, said that the market would not demand specifically senior housing.

"Baby boomers do not want to live in age-restricted communities," Armiger said. "We're definitely going to see a tapering off of buyers for these communities."

The goal should be to design homes with features that are attractive to seniors - built on a single level, for example - rather than simply restricting them by zoning, he said.

In addition, "if the objective really is to have seniors staying in place, not [just] staying in Howard County, [there] should be more alternatives to senior housing," said Lynne Bergling, vice president of the St. John's Community Association. Senior communities indirectly increase crowding in school districts because "you can't prevent somebody from selling their home to a family with kids."

Bypassing the schools test drove senior housing, not the increased density, she said.

"There have to be more alternatives to keeping seniors in the community than building a place for them," Bergling said.

She suggested an APFO exemption for senior housing within the community, allowing the construction of duplexes for senior citizens on 1-acre parcels.

"It takes another lot out of the schools calculation," she said.

Bergling said that increasing the minimum number of units was not as important as adjusting the other components of the regulation, such as the setbacks from surrounding communities.

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