Seniors housing a lingering issue in Waverly Woods

Zoning Board to attempt to reach decision tonight

Ellicott City

August 12, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For years, Baltimore-area politicians and developers tried to avoid public hysteria over subsidized housing by supporting more benign projects such as apartments for seniors.

But that strategy is not working in Ellicott City, where some residents of the upscale Waverly Woods golf course development are up in arms about a proposed apartment house for moderate- income seniors.

Developers say the four-story brick building resembles other senior developments in the county and insist that it would outclass the most expensive homes in the community - despite prices of more than $800,000 for single-family homes.

"It will be a one-of-a-kind showcase," construction manager Jared Spahn testified Tuesday night at a Howard County zoning hearing to decide whether the building is compatible with existing structures.

"They [developers] are really going out of their way," said building architect Ed Hord. "It's a statement."

But nearly 200 residents who turned out in force wearing big "NO 102" stickers say they were misled and tricked by plans for the proposed 102-unit building near the community shopping center and golf course, though the developers say unfounded rumors about Section 8 federal rent subsidies are behind the uproar.

Tonight in Ellicott City, the County Council sitting as the Zoning Board will try to reach a decision on the case.

One older resident said he doesn't object to older people - he is 75 himself - but he has heard there is much more involved.

"The brochure says this is a place for people to have nice homes and families and all," said Leonard Zimmerman, who moved to Waverly Woods from Florida in late 2001 to be near family. "That is not going to be true if this thing happens. You're going to have Section 8 coming in and destroying the whole community. Criminals coming in and everything else coming in there."

Devora Wolk Pontell, a young attorney who bought a townhouse at Waverly two years ago, said residents feel they were deceived into thinking the building was approved when it was not.

Plans made years earlier had separated the moderate-income units at three sites in the 1,363-home community along Interstate 70 east of Marriottsville Road.

The apartment house proposed near the shopping center was originally to have had 60 units, with 30 for moderate-income people. Pontell said opposition is not about Section 8, but is about a poorly handled, seemingly last-minute change in plans.

"It doesn't seem fair to lump moderate-income people all together," she said, adding that her grandmother in Connecticut might be interested in Waverly Woods, but not in a 675-square- foot apartment in a big building. If the units were scattered among market-rate housing for "active seniors" ages 55 and older as originally planned, the apartments would likely be larger, she said.

"All the information was so different, we didn't know what to believe," Pontell said. "It's not as cut and dried as they made it out to be."

Spahn and developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. said county housing officials urged them to consolidate the moderate-income units in one building, offering rents up to $925 a month for people ages 62 and older with incomes under $46,000.

"No matter how we deal with it, we're the loser. The developer catches hell, and all we're trying to do is follow the rules," Reuwer said, mentioning a county zoning law change that encourages concentrated senior housing to benefit residents.

Spahn said the building would cost $85 a square foot to build, compared with $65 a square foot for homes. It would include a metal roof, concrete and brick exterior, solar hot water heating and high-efficiency appliances placed higher for seniors to reach easily - all expensive additions designed to cut rental costs and keep the building looking good for decades.

"This building was designed with one intent - to prove that moderate-income housing doesn't need to look like moderate-income housing," Spahn said.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, said no one younger than 62 could live in the mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, and the building would be strictly managed by the county Housing Commission. The structure would be only slightly larger than the original plans called for and would look similar to other apartment buildings around the county that have not generated discord, Vaughan said.

The developers said the average age for residents likely will be close to 70, and gathering seniors together will help provide public spaces for socializing, bus transportation and proximity to services such as shopping, restaurants, doctors' offices and the golf course.

"Seniors want to be where the action is, " said Hord. "People are lonely. You try to create a community. It's harder to do that in smaller buildings."

Phyillis Madachy, director of the county Office on Aging, said she was mystified at the opposition, especially since the county's senior population is expected to rise rapidly in the next two decades.

"Often senior housing is seen as a stabilizing influence in the community," she said. "Generally, I think older residents are good for a community."

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