At least 400 people jammed a middle-school auditorium in Bel Air Monday night to express their views, most of which were critical, about a plan to develop what would be Harford County's largest continuing care retirement community.
Most of what was said by the public was negative regarding the plan by Presbyterian Home of Maryland to develop the retirement community on part of a 153-acre farm near the intersection of Routes 22 and 543 in the Fountain Green area, a couple of miles east of Bel Air.
Many speakers stressed they understand the property will be developed, but they asked developers to adjust their plans so the project would be in harmony with the surrounding community.
Braving bitter cold with the wind chill in the teens, residents of surrounding communities, such as Tudor Manor, Amyclae East and Fox Chase, attended the community input meeting held at Southampton Middle School.
The meeting, which started at 6 p.m., lasted nearly three and a half hours and, at times, people had to stand in the hallway because there was no room in the auditorium.
Speakers talked about the likelihood for increased traffic on already crowded area roads like Route 543 and potential adverse effects the development could have on the environment and their property values.
A community input meeting is the first step mandated by the county in the review process for all new developments.
Layout changes suggested
Robert Carson, a Havre de Grace attorney hired by the residents of Tudor Manor, one of several communities surrounding the Eva-Mar property, stressed that "the zoning code in Harford County requires that buildings near the periphery of developments such as this have to be harmonious with the adjacent neighborhoods."
Carson presented suggested changes to the plan, including placing the retirement community, or CCRC, in the middle of the property and keeping forested buffers between Eva-Mar and the surrounding communities in place.
He also suggested that "a restrictive covenant be executed and recorded" restricting an extension of Falstaff Road, a street in Tudor Manor that could provide access to the development for emergency vehicles only.
He said that use should be in effect only if Route 543, the main access point to the development, is blocked.
Development of the Eva-Mar property where the 700-unit retirement community would be built would also include an additional 120 single family homes, according to preliminary plans Presbyterian Home has submitted to Harford County.
The retirement community will be operated by Presbyterian Home and the houses would be built by Elm Street Development.
Members of the design team – including Bel Air attorney and Presbyterian Home board member Joseph Snee, Presbyterian Home CEO Susan Shea, Amy DiPietro and Paul Muddiman of the engineering firm Morris & Ritchie Associates Inc., which maintains an office in Abingdon, and Michael Charlton, a vice president with Elm Street – fielded questions from a skeptical audience.
Byron Hawley, a resident of Tudor Manor who described himself as a "tree hugger," encouraged developers to look closer at the potential environmental impacts and study the traffic at one of the most congested times of day, when school lets out. The development will be less than a mile and a half from C. Milton Wright High School.
"Thanks for listening, and this is democracy at work, and these are my people," Hawley said.
One resident, Luis Estrada, of Tudor Manor, brought up connections between Snee and top county officials, in particular Harford County Executive David Craig.
He noted Snee had served as a campaign adviser for Craig, and that one of his partners in the Bel Air firm of Snee, Mahoney, Lutche & Helmlinger P.A., Kevin Mahoney, was appointed by Craig to the county's Economic Development Advisory Board last year.
The appointment, which was made in October, is highlighted in the news section of the firm's website.
"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that this will not be developed or that a CCRC is not appropriate for Harford County; it is not appropriate for here," Estrada said. "So when local politicians and close connections are used to get one up on the citizens, that's where I have a problem."
He also noted Craig had introduced "zoning-related bills" in the fall, a matter of weeks before residents were notified in mid-November of the proposed development of the Eva-Mar property – bills appear to help the developers obtain the specifications needed for the project.
Estrada and other audience members highlighted Bill 13-35, which was introduced Oct. 1, 2013 by Council President Billy Boniface at Craig's request, according to the text of the bill provided by residents. The bill does not take effect until Jan. 21 and, according to county law, could still be petitioned to referendum.
That bill included two changes to portions of the county zoning code pertaining to continuing care retirement communities, one reflecting an earlier change in the state law that sets standards for CCRCs from Article 70B to the Human Services Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland.
The bill also changed design standards for special developments. Height restrictions for garden and mid-rise apartments on land zoned R1 and R2 residential were changed from 50 feet high to four stories and from 60 feet high to five stories in R3 and R4 zones.
The Eva-Mar property is zoned R1, and developers have proposed the community center and other buildings in the CCRC should be four stories high.
The bill was approved by the Harford County Council on Nov. 12, 2013 and signed by Craig on Nov. 19. Residents present Monday said they were notified about the development on Nov. 14.
"Those bills have absolutely nothing to do with the viability and the feasibility of that project," Aaron Tomarchio, Craig's chief of staff, said Tuesday.
Bill 13-36 was related to the clustering of homes within a Natural Resource District and Bill 13-37 extended the time a preliminary plan approval remains valid from two years to three years.
"The county executive has been very supportive of this type of concept of bringing it to Harford County," Tomarchio said of a CCRC. "It has been an economic development goal for a number of years."
He added: "The fact that there is a professional relationship between Mr. Craig and Mr. Snee has nothing to do with the fact that we have wanted a CCRC in Harford County for a number of years."
Tomarchio, speaking on behalf of Craig, who was at a legislative briefing in Annapolis, acknowledged Tuesday that Snee worked on Craig's campaigns, but noted he has assisted with a number of other elected officials' campaigns over the years.
He said Snee and Craig had the type of relationship "just like any other attorney that has a client that has matters before the county would."
Estrada stressed later that he wanted to point out the connections to the audience.
"The community deserves to know who is influencing this development plan," he explained. "They deserve to know that, before we had a voice as citizens and neighbors of the project, that others had a direct line to our elected officials."
Snee said after the meeting that the 70B code no longer exists in state law and has been replaced in the Annotated Code by the Human Services Article.
He said the change from 50 feet high to four stories would allow the developers to design a four-story community center with a parapet on the roof, an architectural flourish that also helps cover up heating and air conditioning infrastructure.
He said the design is similar to what was proposed when Presbyterian Home planned to build a CCRC in Aberdeen two years ago. That project was canceled, however, after Presbyterian Home became embroiled in a dispute with city officials over a major property tax break the developer had sought and the city council rejected.
Presbyterian Home is using nearly-identical concepts for the Bel Air site, which Snee had noted in an earlier interview.
"We cleaned up the code and we got to keep our architecture that we had in Aberdeen and move it over to Bel Air," Snee said.
Edward Hopkins, chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, said he was neutral about the project itself but explained the street plans for the development should be able to accommodate the largest fire-fighting equipment.
Hopkins also quizzed Presbyterian Home representatives about how many additional emergency calls the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company emergency medical services teams would be expected to handle.
He was told most such calls would be handled by private ambulance services, in the same manner such calls are handled at Presbyterian Home's continuing care retirement community in Towson.
"We will have in-house staff that will handle emergencies," Shea, the Presbyterian Home CEO, told Hopkins. "If it's a life-threatening emergency we will be calling 911."
Shea said ambulances typically do not use lights and sirens when they enter the Towson campus in deference to the residents, but Hopkins told her that "my people will run lights and sirens through the community if it's necessary."
He said that could be done if the CCRC was closer to Route 543, but since it is in the northwest end of the property, with a number of internal streets between it and Route 543, ambulance crews would need to keep their lights on and use sirens when crossing intersections.
"I'm not arguing pro or con, I'm just saying if you have people on staff that will take off that burden of those lift assists, medical alarms, things like that that are, for us, non-urgent type calls, that reduces the workload," Hopkins explained.
The fire chief said there are already seven assisted living facilities and nursing homes in the Bel Air fire company's 80-square-mile service area, and EMS crews respond to about 7,000 calls each year.
DiPietro, of Morris and Ritchie, said the retirement community will be built in at least three phases. She said developers anticipate breaking ground for the CCRC and single-family homes in 2015, with the first home occupied in 2016.
The first phase of the retirement community is expected to open in late 2017 or early 2018.
Snee said after the meeting that the design team is scheduled to meet early next week to evaluate what residents said at Monday's meeting.
"We are going to evaluate every reasonable proposal we heard tonight," he said.