A mixed-use residential and retail project proposed for Forest Hill drew a standing-room only crowd opposed to it during a Harford County Development Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday.
Osprey Property Companies, of Annapolis, is seeking Harford County approval to build Rock Spring Station, a three-story structure at 2000 Rock Spring Road in Forest Hill. The first story would be reserved for retail, while the second and third stories would be for apartments, according to Brian Lopez, executive vice president for Osprey.
The developer plans to build 54 one, two and three-bedroom apartments. Osprey is working through a state housing tax credit program to ensure a large portion of those apartments are rented at affordable rates.
"It's not public housing," Lopez told a skeptical crowd. "It's not private Section 8 housing."
The program involves selling state tax credits to private investors — Wells Fargo in this case — and using that revenue to reduce the amount of debt taken on by the developer, Lopez explained later.
"That's how you keep the rents affordable; you pass the savings on," he said. "The rents are reduced because you don't need as much income to pay your debt service."
At least 40 percent of the units must be rented at a rate that meets 60 percent of the local median income; Lopez said the median income in Harford County is $91,000 a year.
He estimated, when pressed by audience members, that the average rent could be $1,000 a month, or about $850 or $900 for a one-bedroom unit.
Those numbers drew cries of "low income" from the public.
He said Thursday that one-bedroom apartments would rent for up to $995, two-bedroom units for $1,194 and three-bedroom apartments for $1,379, and those rents would be adjusted annually.
The audience, made up of a number of people who live in Forest Hill, filled to capacity the meeting room in the Harford County administration building in downtown Bel Air.
Fifty-six people had put their names on the sign-in sheet for the DAC meeting.
Their concerns included the risk that affordable rents could make the apartments low-income housing and draw crime, drugs and lower property values, plus the complex could draw more vehicle traffic to an already heavily-traveled commercial corridor.
"This is already a high-traffic area and a dangerous one," said resident Lewis Long.
Long has lived in the Forest Hill area for about 50 years and currently lives in the area of Grafton Shop Road and Boggs Road, about two miles from the property in question.
He talked about a litany of auto crashes he has seen in the area and invited DAC members to his house to see for themselves.
"You will sit there and you will shiver in your boots at what you'll see," Long said.
The 5.38-acre property, which is zoned B2 commercial, is on the west side of Route 24, across from Maurice Drive in the heavily-traveled Forest Hill retail corridor.
The property is just north of a shopping center that includes a Kohl's clothing store, Chik-fil-A restaurant and a Freedom Federal Credit Union branch.
Rich Zeller, who represents the State Highway Administration on the DAC, said the developer must create an entrance from Route 24 and make highway improvements in the vicinity.
His agency is reviewing a traffic study, and he deferred making comments on potential improvements to Route 24 until the review is complete.
Forest Lakes Elementary School is right behind the property, and the Forest Hill Recreation Council athletic fields are next door to the school.
The developers plan a series of trails so residents can walk from the complex to neighboring properties, which the county is requiring as part of their plan.
"We would like them to have a pedestrian connection to the adjacent properties," DAC chairman Moe Davenport said.
Lopez noted trail users would include children who live in the apartments and attend the elementary school.
"We like the fact that it's right next to a school," he said.
Laura Carotenuto, a Forest Hill resident whose children attend Forest Lakes, brought her son and daughter to the meeting. She is concerned about their safety and other students' safety with the trail connection to the apartment complex.
"These are the children who will be sharing a trail with a low income apartment complex," Carotenuto said.
Audience members expressed frustration with committee members about what they perceived as a lack of notification from the county.
Davenport, however, noted signs are typically posted at the site, and neighbors are notified of upcoming projects, plus extensive information is available on the county's website.
Lopez, the representative of the developer, said he is willing to hold additional meetings with the public.
DAC is not responsible for final approvals of the project, but the various agencies – health department, public works, state highways – that have representatives on the panel will have to sign off on the project before construction can begin.
Developers hope to start construction by the first quarter of 2018, Lopez said.