Bel Air area residents opposed to the construction of a 514-unit retirement community and 144 single-family houses, in the midst of their neighborhoods, urged county and state officials Wednesday make the retirement community smaller and control overall growth along the Route 543 corridor.
"This, gentlemen and ladies, is not common sense with this many people in this area," resident Greg Marcinkiewicz told members of the Harford County Development Advisory Committee, or DAC.
Marcinkiewicz lives in Amyclae East, one of four subdivisions that surround the 152-acre Eva-Mar Farm, just north of the intersection of Route 543 and Amyclae Drive and about two and a half miles east of the center of Bel Air.
The farm is also about a mile south of C. Milton Wright High School and about half a mile north of the busy Fountain Green intersection of Routes 543 and 22.
Marcinkiewicz said bringing more people to an already-congested area would lead to a fatal traffic accident.
"Too many people in one area, the roads are not being expanded, you're going to get death," he said. "We know it; we're just being blind to it."
Marcinkiewicz was one of several people expressing their views about the retirement community, which is called Carsins Run at Eva-Mar and would be operated by Presbyterian Home of Maryland, headquartered in Towson. Most of the comments were negative, but a few people spoke in favor of the project.
About 60 to 70 people attended the DAC review, according to Harford County planning and zoning staffers. It was held in the Harford County Council chambers, rather than in the county administration building in Bel Air, to accommodate the larger-than-usual crowd.
"It may be suitable for other Harford County locations, but not on this relatively small property," Tudor Manor resident Jim O'Brien said of the Eva-Mar development plan.
O'Brien said developers are putting "too large of a business model onto a site that is the wrong place and too small for it."
Residents of Amyclae East, as well as their neighbors in Tudor Manor, Fox Chase and Wagner Farm have said for months that the project is too much for area roads and schools to handle. They are also concerned about harm to the forests, wetlands and streams that cover large portions of the Eva-Mar farm, which was owned by the late Eugene and Lela Probst.
The land is owned by a trust set up by Mr. Probst before he died in 2011. Elm Street Development of McLean, Va. has a contract to purchase the entire property, and Presbyterian Home would then develop its retirement community on a 47-acre parcel.
Some who spoke stressed they are not against growth and development, but they pleaded for a scaled-down project, with about 225 to 250 units in the retirement community, plus the 144 houses, which would be a better fit for the corridor.
Others called for a wholesale improvement to Route 543, apart from the Carsins Run development, to fix long-term traffic and engineering issues.
"The conditions of the road right now are hazardous," Fox Chase resident Greg Baldino said. "They need to be fixed prior to anything happening, whether you add this development or not."
Three people spoke in favor of the project, saying that having a comprehensive retirement community in Harford County would allow them to continue to live near family and their communities.
Convenience for seniors
"As I look ahead, how convenient to have a retirement community to be here where I've earned my living," Karen Gyolai of the Bel Air area said.
Gyolai said the Carsins Run project will allow her to remain close to her adult children and granddaughter.
"Why would I want to move away when I can continue to support the local businesses that have provided for me in the past 26 years?" she asked.
Sally Campbell of Forest Hill said the project would be ideal for Harford County's growing senior citizen population.
"We need to retain our seniors," she said. "We need to retain our tax revenue without putting pressure on roads and schools, and we also need to provide good jobs, and I think that this project will do all of those things."
Campbell also noted the developers are required by law to make road improvements in the vicinity of their project, and she stressed even small changes designed by road engineers can make a large difference, based on her years of experience as a commuter.
"The road changes, the intersection changes are going to be paid for by this project, not by the taxpayers," she said. "Support our seniors, please."
Amy DiPietro of the Abingdon engineering firm Morris & Ritchie Associates Inc. told DAC members the retirement community and houses will be build in phases, with a projected groundbreaking in 2015.
She said the first single-family home should be occupied in late 2016 and the first phase of the retirement community should open in late 2017.
DiPietro presented a concept plan to the DAC in April, which was approved by the county in June. She presented more detailed preliminary plans Wednesday.
She said the retirement community will include 90 health care units, 14 villa units and 410 apartment-style units for independent living, as well as a four-story clubhouse building at the center of the site.
The clubhouse includes a community center, library, bistro, pool, movie theater, chapel and wellness center.
A 50-foot buffer will also be planted around the perimeter of the site; there will be space for walking trails, and sidewalks will be built along the property's 1,600 feet of frontage along Route 543.
"Our ultimate design goals with this project were to respect the natural characteristics of the site, use buffers and open space and create a sense of community, pedestrian friendly and encourage social interactions," DiPietro said.
Members of the DAC gave their comments on the preliminary plans for the retirement community and the residential development.
Committee members representing law enforcement, volunteer fire and EMS companies and the county's Department of Emergency Services urged the developers to provide the appropriate signs and street and trail design to allow emergency vehicles quick access.
"Poor judgment can cause deficient time," Robin Wales of the Department of Emergency Services said.
The developers have submitted a traffic impact analysis for county and state review. Rich Zeller of the State Highway Administration said staff would defer making and specific comments until that review is complete.
The developers also have submitted a waiver to the county Department of Planning and Zoning to remove 49 "specimen trees" for construction.
Eric Vacek of Planning and Zoning said a more detailed waiver must be submitted with more detail about each tree and why it should be removed.
Moe Davenport, chairman of the DAC, said specimen trees are 30 inches in diameter or larger.
The project is the second attempt by Presbyterian Home of Maryland to build a continuing care retirement community in Harford County to allow local senior citizens to remain close to their families and communities, as they "age in place," which is how advocates explain the concept.
Presbyterian Home canceled its plans to build the Village of Carsins Run on land near Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen in 2011 after a dispute with city officials over tax incentives provided by the city in exchange for the construction of infrastructure.
James Redding of Aberdeen wore a green and white T-shirt with the words "We support Carsins Run" on it during Wednesday's meeting.
He said afterward that he had made a 10 percent down payment on a unit when the retirement community was proposed for Aberdeen.
Redding said he supports the concept of a CCRC but added the Eva-Mar Farm is not a good location because of traffic congestion and the animosity of the community.
"I think they had an ideal situation going in Aberdeen," he said.