The idea of extending public water and sewer service into western Howard County to allow construction of up to 2,000 senior housing units on farmland would normally spark a political battle royal.
But not, apparently, when the location is historic Doughoregan Manor.
Erickson Retirement Communities wants to use up to 188 acres of the historic 892-acre Carroll family estate, and there is no sign of criticism.
Doughoregan is between Route 108 on the south and Frederick Road on the north, just northwest of Columbia. It is a remnant of the Colonial-era estate of more than 10,000 acres and was the home of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence.
His descendants - siblings Camilla and Philip D. Carroll - have worked to preserve the nearly 300-year-old mansion and surrounding land.
"The idea that we've always been working with is to try to maintain the integrity of the historic core," Camilla Carroll said in a telephone interview last week.
The family doesn't expect to be able to see any new buildings from the mansion, she said.
"We're going to preserve everything we can," Carroll said.
But Carroll said the family is also mindful of the future.
"This isn't just about me. It's about my kids, and their kids, and their kids," she said.
That is one reason the family wanted to give the county 36 acres to enlarge Kiwanis-Wallas Park, she said.
"Giving some land to the county was always part of our plan," Carroll said. "We want to give something to the county and especially to the children."
The idea of retirees being able to walk to the park and see their grandchildren at play is "a marvelous sort of vision to have," Carroll said.
If the county approves the required zoning and utility changes, Erickson, which built and operates 23 senior campuses for more than 22,000 people in 12 states, would get 150 acres in a long north-to-south swath on the eastern edge of the tract for up to 1,500 apartments and community facilities for seniors. There is also an option to buy 38 more acres for 500 more units. Financial terms of the deal were not revealed.
To achieve that density, however, Erickson will need public utilities, which now stop near the eastern edge of the tract. Mel Tansill, senior director of corporate public affairs for the Catonsville-based Erickson, said the company wants those utilities extended onto Doughoregan. The key, according to James M. Irvin, the county public works director, is whether that can be done without violating state standards for increased nutrients and other pollution in sewage.
In addition to changing the county's master water and sewer plan, the General Plan, which is used to guide growth over a 20-year period, would have to be amended and a zoning change made. Public hearings would occur at the Planning Board and County Council, and Tansill said the firm wants to schedule a series of community meetings, too.
Key county politicians seem on board with the idea.
"I think this is really such a positive solution on so many levels it allays any concern about water and sewer," said County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, who, like council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, ran for office in 2006 amid voter concerns that growth and development might be moving too fast.
"I'm somebody who treads very carefully when it comes to expansion of the planned service area [served by water and sewer lines]," Ulman said. "I think it's really the most positive compromise that could have been reached."
Ulman and Watson said they see this deal as allowing the Carroll family the money needed to preserve the bulk of Doughoregan, while acting to block further rural incursions of development.
"It's a very unique piece of property. There's only one of its kind in the country," said Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area.
"I think it's the ultimate example of managed growth," she said, noting that senior housing produces no schoolchildren, that most of the land would be preserved, and that she has not yet heard any objections to the concept.
Ulman also said he believes that public confidence is bolstered by Erickson's participation because the company is respected locally. He is thinking about more ball fields, and perhaps a big playground and walking paths on the donated parkland.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat whose council district border is near Doughoregan, said she, too, has no immediate objections. The council has extended water and sewer lines for individual buildings, churches and small properties in the past.
Not everyone is so agreeable, though.
Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the county branch of the League of Women Voters, said she worries about the potential water, sewer and traffic impacts of the project."Personally, I'd have to see a lot more detail," she said.
Kubofcik said the league has opposed water and sewer extensions except for emergency health reasons or if done during the decennial General Plan review, which could begin next year.