Arundel considers effects of boom in senior housing

Crowded schools a factor in age-restricted projects

April 14, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

When Tim Bishop of Washington Homes acquired 16 acres of prime real estate off U.S. 50 in one of Anne Arundel County's most popular neighborhoods, he envisioned a new residential development with perks: a great location, easy freeway access and a desirable school feeder system.

Bishop's Broadneck Place still has its picturesque location and convenient commute, but county rules that prohibit home construction near overcrowded schools have prompted him to build an adults-only community, one that will be off limits to families with school-age children.

Bishop's not upset; the market for senior housing is red-hot.

"Although everyone is using age-restricted housing as a strategy, it is not without paying attention to the market forces," said the land acquisition manager. "It just so happens that right now there is plenty of demand for this kind of housing."

Around the Baltimore region, developers are increasingly turning to age-restricted housing to fill a market niche for graying baby boomers and others. But in Anne Arundel, they often have no choice.

Now developers and planning officials worry that the schools policy - one that County Executive Janet S. Owens has promised to uphold - could turn Smart Growth ideals, such as clustered growth near business and retail hubs, upside down.

With five of 12 school districts off limits to all but age-restricted developments, the result of the county's schools policy could be sprawl - a slow creep of housing into rural areas.

"I'm not sure this is in the best interest of Anne Arundel County," said W. Kevin Lusby, director of land development for Koch Homes, which is building 129 age-restricted units in Deep Creek. "I think the [schools] policy should be re-evaluated. ... The county can't support the growth rate."

Anne Arundel Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. agreed that the county's no-growth policy in areas with crowded schools could be subverting Smart Growth. He said he hopes to find a solution.

"When you target growth in certain areas and then you can't grow there because the schools are crowded, you are encouraging home builders to go into [rural areas] or out of the county," Rutter said. "But a lot of those home buyers will drive through the county to get to work in Annapolis and we just get more traffic."

In Anne Arundel, the trend is a result of a booming housing market clashing with a shortage of school seats. The same trend may also be affecting land-use decisions in Howard County, although it is less evident, in part because of that county's use of senior housing incentives.

The recent spike in adult-only housing in Anne Arundel County - 11 communities with roughly 1,000 units are in the permitting and construction pipeline - has also caused local elected officials to take notice.

"I am concerned about this," said County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican whose Broadneck Peninsula area has been slated for five new age-restricted communities. She said the de facto planning policy, if left unchecked, could result in a glut of adult-only housing or a dip in residential land prices in areas with crowded schools.

"This is a red-flag issue that the county ought to address," she said.

Although Howard County also has witnessed an increase in age-restricted housing - about a dozen projects are now in the works - planning officials there have made a conscious decision to encourage such developments, said Jeff Bronow, research division chief for Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning.

A provision for senior housing units was added to the 2000 general development plan, Bronow said. Such proposed developments also receive special consideration during the permit process, and in some cases win out over residential projects that could contribute to school crowding. Like Anne Arundel, Howard does not to allow home building in areas where schools lack adequate space.

"We did provide an incentive, but the market was there," Bronow said, noting that 2000 Census data identified Howard County's population as the "fastest-aging" in the state. "This probably would have happened anyway, but now it allows it to happen more easily."

A Baltimore County planning official said that while senior housing has become more popular, the trend is not tied to crowding at area schools. Rather, it has been market-driven: More elderly residents are looking to retire in the same community where they worked and raised their children.

"Folks used to go to Florida or Arizona, but now they are saying, `We don't want to do that; we want to live near our kids and grandkids,'" said John D. Rhoad Jr., managing principal at RMJ Development Group of McLean, Va., which develops senior housing in Virginia and Maryland. "These days, seniors are trying to keep a major home base near their children."

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