Residents of communities surrounding a Bel Air area farm slated for a housing development and large retirement community pleaded with Harford County and state officials Wednesday to push the developers to reduce the project's scale or stop it completely.
A concept plan for the project, called Carsins Run at Eva Mar, was presented to the members of the county's Development Advisory Committee Wednesday. Though the majority of the public comments about the development were negative, a few people spoke in favor of the retirement community plan.
Developers with Presbyterian Home of Maryland, headquartered in Towson, and Elm Street Development, headquartered in McLean, Va., plan to build a 514-unit continuing care retirement community and 144 single-family homes on the 152-acre Eva-Mar farm.
The property, which is at the intersection of Route 543 (North Fountain Green Road) and Amyclae Drive, is zoned for residential uses, including a retirement community. The farm is less than half a mile north of the intersection of Routes 543 and Route 22.
"[Route] 543 and 22 are nightmares," Greg Baldino, a resident of the area, said. "They should have been addressed by the County Council and the DAC well before this."
Neighbors have fought the project for months, fearing the impact of hundreds of additional drivers on the already-congested Route 543, as well as the negative impact on their property values by having what they consider a commercial operation – the retirement community's hub – in a four-story building.
Other issues raised by opponents include potential environmental harm from clearing the forested portion of the farm and putting additional stress on wetlands that feed the Bynum Run stream, overcrowding of nearby schools and the safety of children who walk to C. Milton Wright High School.
The property is surrounded by subdivisions that have been built during the past 30 to 40 years, such as Tudor Manor, Fox Chase and Amyclae East.
Hundreds of people packed community input meetings hosted by the developers in January and February and, after hearing objections at the first session, project planners reduced the number of proposed retirement community units and increased the number of single family houses.
"Whatever is done on Eva-Mar is going to impact our woods, our non-tidal wetlands, our stormwater management," Byron Hawley, who lives in the Tudor Manor community just north of the development site, said.
Most residents who spoke against the project said they understand the need for development in general and for a local retirement community for Harford's increasing senior citizen population, but stressed the Eva-Mar farm is not the right place for it.
"All things being equal... I don't want to oppose the notion of a CCRC in general, but I just want my neighborhood to remain equal to what it is now," Tudor Manor resident Christopher McGovern said.
Seniors, county support
A handful of local seniors, speaking in the midst of strident opposition from those living near the farm, encouraged the review committee to push the project forward in the hopes they can remain in Harford County during their golden years.
"We really do not want to have to leave our church, our family, our doctors and our friends," Linda Corea, of Churchville, said.
Anne Brown, of Glenwood near Bel Air, said her mother has enjoyed her stay in a retirement community in Pennsylvania similar to what Presbyterian Home officials plan to build.
"We want the same opportunity to move into a place of our choice in Harford County... the CCRC at Carsins Run at Eva Mar will give us that choice," she said.
A continuing care retirement community is an economic development project that Harford County officials say they have been pursing for a number of years to give senior citizens a location to "age in place," to spend their final years at a single location with all levels of care they may need from independent to assisting living to long-term nursing care.
Presbyterian Home put out a news release in February in which a senior county government official, Director of Administration Mary Chance, all but endorsed the project.
A spokesman for the administration of Harford County Executive David Craig later said Chance was speaking about the continuing care or life care concept, not the Eva-Mar project specifically; however, opponents took the Chance statement as an indication Craig is supporting the project. Joseph Snee, a Bel Air lawyer and Craig fund-raiser, is a member of the Presbyterian Home board and has been handling the legal work on the project with the county government.
The development advisory committee, or DAC, typically holds its meetings in a room in the county administrative building that accommodates about 50 people. Wednesday's meeting was moved a block away to the county council's chambers because of an anticipated large turnout.
About 100 people showed up, though some were there for a review of the plans for the new Youth's Benefit Elementary School building in Fallston and the expansion of Oak Grove Baptist Church's school near Bel Air, both of which were on the agenda with Eva-Mar.
The entire meeting lasted for about two and a half hours, with the Eva-Mar portion taking about 90 minutes.
Building 'Jurassic Park'
Bill Onorato, a resident of the Tudor Manor, made reference to the 1993 blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park," citing the line of actor Jeff Goldblum's character, Ian Malcolm.
Malcolm tells the operators of the ill-fated dinosaur park that "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should!"
"These guys are building Jurassic Park right next door to us," Onorato said.
He added: "Can they? Absolutely, the zoning code says that they can, but that doesn't mean that the zoning code is right."
The farm was owned and operated by Lela and Eugene Probst until their deaths in 2008 and 2011, respectively. The property passed to a trust controlled by Mr. Probst's brother, which is selling it to Oak Street.
Mrs. Probst, known as "Punky" by her friends and family, and her husband kept peacocks, ducks, wild geese and other fowl and had a number of cats and other animals, according to people who knew the couple well. An etching of the farm and the animals who called it home is on their shared gravestone in the Mt. Zion Methodist Church cemetery, about a quarter of a mile from the farm.
"I think Punky would be very happy for all the spunk in this room for her farm," Rosemary Mirabelle, who recently sold her house in Tudor Manor, said.
Moe Davenport, DAC's chairman, said the developers still must bring a more detailed preliminary plan back to the committee for review, as well as submit a traffic impact analysis that is reviewed by the State Highway Administration.
Mike Rist, who represents the Department of Public Works on the committee, said public works officials recommend placing sidewalks along the "frontage" of Route 543.
Aside from that, however, there was no talk from any of the county officials at the meeting about making significant changes to the plan.
When residents asked Davenport whether the committee could order the developers to scale down or delay the project, he stressed his group is a "technical advisory committee."
"This committee doesn't review anything that isn't permitted by law," he said.
The next step in the process will be for the developers to complete the full plan, present the traffic study and address other suggestions such as the sidewalks.
That process can take weeks or months, but Wednesday's session was the last time for the general public to make its views known prior to final county approval.