Another growth debate looming

Issues raised on plan for affordable senior units in Woodbine

November 15, 2006|by a sun reporter

Two powerful but diametrically opposite forces are converging, promising another debate in Howard County over growth and land-use policies.

The first is the need for senior housing at an affordable price amid the most significant demographic changes in the county's history.

The second are homeowners who purchased large and expensive homes, each on 2-plus acres in Woodbine, with the expectation that they would be protected from encroachment.

A plan to construct age-restricted housing units in Woodbine has ignited concern and, in some instances, opposition from nearby homeowners. The property is located roughly a quarter of a mile north of the intersection of Old Frederick Road and Woodbine Road and adjacent to the Lisbon Center shopping complex.

An ownership group, which includes developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. and attorney Richard B. Talkin, has proposed constructing 20 units. Planned are five structures, each designed to resemble a large single-family home, and would be restricted to people who are at least 55.

The structures would have a maximum of 5,000 square feet, and each unit within them probably would cost $300,000 to $400,000, Reuwer, president of Land Design & Development Inc., told a gathering of Woodbine residents Thursday night.

The county has encouraged that design, in part to make multiunit projects more compatible with and palatable to single-family neighborhoods.

Residents seemed unconvinced on either point.

"The major concerns are the well-water situation and the septic situation," said Joanne Sheldon, who lives on Old Frederick Road, not far from the proposed development.

But she also said residents fear the development would "devalue our properties."

"You can't buy a house out here for $300,000-$400,000," Sheldon told Reuwer. "We don't want low-income housing out here."

Reuwer has been involved in several senior housing developments recently in response to a need that is expected to grow significantly over the next few years.

The over-55 age group is the fastest-growing category, and it is projected to increase by more than 46,000, to almost 100,000 people by 2030 - making up almost a third of the county's population.

Meeting the housing needs of those residents has been the single largest driving force for the housing industry in the county for the past five years.

Many of those built have been luxury units, and county officials have said there is a critical need for affordable housing for those ages 55 and older.

Several residents voiced concern because the development would be on well water and use a common septic system.

"This area is on well-water and septic systems," Sheldon said. "With this proposed plan, it will have a very bad impact on the area."

Reuwer said the sewerage system must be built to standards established by the Health Department, and he said that an arm of the Maryland Department of the Environment would operate it.

The property is zoned for general business. And Reuwer told the residents that other uses that are allowed as a matter of right might be less desirable than age-restricted housing.

Those uses, he said, include gas stations, car washes and automobile repair shops. "It's pretty heavy commercial zoning," Reuwer said.

Age-restricted housing would be permitted on that property through a conditional-use permit.

Reuwer also said that county regulations place on residents the "burden of proof" to show that such a conditional-use permit "would be worse [on them] than some similarly zoned" neighborhood.

Sheldon said the development would be incompatible with the neighborhood and added that few services would be available for residents of the development.

"There's no transportation at all," she said. "No activity centers."

Reuwer said the owners intend to do "something" with the property, but said they would listen to alternatives to age-restricted housing.

"I'm sure they're open to all types of ideas," he said.

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