Tensions over development in a maturing Howard County highlighted debate on a bill to change the rules for building new homes for the fast-growing senior population at a County Council hearing last night.
The bill, sponsored by Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, would raise the minimum number of units from 20 to 50 to qualify for "floating" senior housing zoning. It is controversial because it would limit where the senior communities could be built .
FOR THE RECORD - An article published yesterday in the Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly characterized a senior housing bill under County Council consideration. The measure, which would increase the minimum size of some senior developments from 20 to 50 units, applies only to Age Restricted Adult Housing, which is allowed under conditional use zoning.
The Sun regrets the error.
Advocates for seniors fear that approval would mean less housing availability, while Merdon's backers say small lots burdened with densely packed townhouses could visually hurt older, traditional neighborhoods.
"The term affordable housing has been left out of this discussion," said Donald Dunn, 74, a member of the county's Commission on Aging. Having more units in each development might indeed bring builder's costs down, he said, but the price won't come down, too. The only way it does, he said, is if the supply of housing for seniors outstrips demand. By changing the minimum number of homes to 50, "you eliminate 75 percent of the potential areas of units involved," he said.
The original idea two years ago when the legislation was enacted was to allow housing for so-called active seniors in as many places as possible to prepare for the growth expected in the county's senior population.
But a proposal by Kimberly Homes to build 30 townhouses for people 55 and older on just under 7 acres off Frederick Road near Font Hill in Ellicott City roused the opposition of neighbors.
Although the Font Hill project predates Merdon's bill and thus would not be affected, several community members testified that having 30 multistory townhouses 50 feet from their homes is too much change in the single-family, detached-home area to be tolerated. They hope the bill would prevent such conflicts in other areas.
"I myself am for senior housing," said Patrick Crowe, president of Friends of Font Hill. But five homes an acre "really doesn't come together very well on those smaller parcels," he said, noting that the county's planners originally recommended a 50-unit minimum for the zone.
"My wife and I believe the rules have been changed in the middle of our game," said John Lederer, the group's vice president, who said the new homes would rise 50 feet from his back door.
But John Taylor, a slow-growth advocate, worried that raising the minimum to 50 would force more projects into the rural western county, where public utilities are not available. He asked that the western county be excluded from the zone.
Merdon has said 169 parcels would be eligible with the 50-unit restriction.
On another bill, there was no controversy over a proposal to allow homeowners at New Colony Village, a 228-unit manufactured home development along U.S. 1 in Dorsey, to subdivide their lots.
The residents have been trapped in legal limbo, unable to sell their homes because buyers could not get financing because only the homes, not the land on which they sit, could be bought.
The bill sponsored by councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, would decrease the minimum lot size and width requirements for "traditional residential neighborhoods" in mobile homes zones. New Colony Village is the only place in Howard that fits that definition.
James Wood, 31, a U.S. Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Meade, said he and his wife, Holly, also a soldier, bought their house in September 2001 but have not been able to refinance the mortgage and will be paying 8.75 percent interest - forcing them to get a personal loan to keep up with expenses.
"We were denied a home equity loan," he said, and had to use their car for collateral on the personal, higher interest loan.
"Hang in there, we're almost there," Rakes told him.