With the recession continuing to freeze even one of the most reliable housing sectors, Erickson Retirement Communities has dropped plans to buy and develop up to 188 acres of historic Doughoregan Manor in Howard County as a senior living complex.
Erickson's decision to abandon a nearly two-year-old plan to build 2,000 senior housing units on the parcel creates uncertainty for the manor, the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence that remains in family hands.
The family of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the declaration, had hoped to use money from the sale of the parcel to restore and preserve the nearly 300-year-old family mansion and other historic structures once occupied by their famed ancestor.
Lying between Route 108 and Frederick Road, north and west of Columbia, it is the largest undeveloped tract in Howard County.
The deal's demise indicates that problems continue in the senior housing market in the county. Sales have slowed for other developments geared toward older people, a growing segment of the population that until recently had the substantial savings and home equity that made them an attractive market for developers.
But now, many retirees, facing both diminished investment incomes and existing home values, have postponed plans to move to senior housing. In Howard, sales of upscale townhouses for seniors have stopped at Scott's Glen in Columbia, and builders recently tried unsuccessfully to get the County Council to allow sales to customers of any age."People are being forced to wait" to make a retirement move, said Anirban Basu, an economist and owner of Sage Policy Group.
Dick Story, Howard's economic development CEO, called Erickson's withdrawal a temporary economic setback.
"It's an excellent piece of property," he said. "Somebody will come along in the future" and propose another project.
"It is a loss," he said of Erickson's "excellent" plan, "and we rue the fact that it's not going forward."
Wayne Rush, regional vice president of development for Erickson, issued a one-paragraph confirmation that the Doughoregan purchase was off, but his statement added that "the project may, or may not be revisited."
But at least one county official said Thursday that she does not expect Erickson to reconsider.
"As far as I can tell, it's a casualty of the economy. It's not postponed; it's off," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat whose district includes Doughoregan.
Meanwhile, the Carrolls are back where they started, as are preservationists and residents who oppose development west of existing water and sewer lines, where Doughoregan lies. "All we can do is look at our options, as we were doing before Erickson came on the scene," Camilla Carroll, who lives on the estate, wrote in an e-mail message. She and her brother, Philip D. Carroll, own the land and are famously private and fiercely dedicated to maintaining ownership and control of the property.
Doughoregan, once the heart of a 10,000-acre Colonial farm, lies in an area of Howard County increasingly known for its very expensive homes.
"There is no money now to restore anything, and historic buildings are falling down as we speak," Camilla Carroll said.
The family still hopes to limit development and preserve most of the remaining property, she said. They applied in April for protection of 500 acres of their 892-acre property through the county's agricultural preservation program, which pays up to $40,000 per acre over time. That process usually takes months before decisions are reached.
Another branch of the Carroll family has 1,200 adjoining acres, called South Manor, much of which is already in permanent preservation.
The Erickson plan had been under review by county planners. Erickson had announced in September 2007 that it would buy 150 acres of the Carroll land, with an option for 38 more acres. As part of the deal, the Carrolls were to donate 36 acres to help expand a county-owned park at the northeast corner of the estate, near Frederick Road.
The fate of the land has been of public concern since May 22, 2007, the end of a 30-year protective easement granted by the Maryland Historic Trust on much of the property. The Erickson plan was welcomed by county officials and much of the public because of the builder's reputation and the family's intent to use profits from the deal to restore and preserve their remaining property.
"I think it's sad," said Cathy Hudson, a preservation and land-use activist in the county. "It's a very, very important part of our history and an important part of our county."