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Tax break for affordable apartments in Abingdon would cost Harford $23,000 annually

Harford County Council members seemed supportive of a request for the county to subsidize a new affordable housing development planned for Abingdon's Constant Friendship Boulevard.

The builders of the Riverwoods at Tollgate project want the county to let them make payments in lieu of taxes, a plan that would cost the county about $23,000 annually in potential revenue for 10 years, according to the county auditor's office.

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The 84-unit apartment community, to be built on eight acres off of Arundel Court between Abingdon's Walmart and Target, is the first phase of a project that will include senior housing and a "commercial piece," county community development coordinator Tiffany Robinson told council members during a hearing on the project Tuesday.

Riverwoods got the green light from the county's development advisory committee, Robinson said. The PILOT would secure $9.5 million in state tax credits that Riverwoods' owners have received, she said.

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Council members Dick Slutzky and Mary Ann Lisanti said after Tuesday's council meeting they think the project is well worth the lost revenue.

"I weigh that against what kind of services we have to provide now for people who need workforce housing," Slutzky, who is running for council president, said.

Lisanti said the location is ideal and it represents opportunity for people who may otherwise have trouble finding decent housing.

"We are creating starter homes. We have a void of starter homes in the county," she said. "It doesn't interfere with an existing community. It's been difficult, historically, to put town homes in an established neighborhood."

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Lisanti noted the state would be subsidizing the property, not just the county, and pointed out the county already provides housing assistance.

"It's a step forward," she said about the type of housing Riverwoods would provide. "It's an opportunity as opposed to just a Band-Aid."

Under the PILOT agreement, Riverwoods' owners would pay $440 per housing unit each year, with a 3 percent annual escalation.

The agreement would run for 10 years, "the shortest term of a PILOT entered into for Harford County," Robinson told the council.

The county is expected to lose a total of $231,197 in revenue if the PILOT is approved.

Slutzky told county officials during the hearing that the distance of Riverwoods from other homes makes it an ideal location. Robinson said the project would create a "walkable community" and would ultimately feature a community center, dog park and walking trails, among other amenities.

The Harford Community Action Agency would be available to provide services, such as budget and credit counseling to residents, she said. The PILOT is expected to start in late 2016, if approved.

"In my mind, this looks like the most advantageous place to put a project of this magnitude," Slutzky said at the hearing. He agreed with Lisanti that if a project like this is to be done, it should happen away from other residences.

'"To me, it appears like a win-win situation," Slutzky said.

Council president Billy Boniface questioned the traffic impact of the project, which county officials said was already reviewed by the development advisory committee.

"This is probably one of the worst intersections in the county," Boniface said. "During the holidays, you can't get in and out. So we're putting how many residential units in an area that's already failing infrastructure."

Monthly rents at Riverwoods are projected to range from $830 for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment to $1,440 for a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment, Jeff Paxson, president of developer Pax Edwards, said after the meeting.

Apartment communities in the area typically charge at least $800 for a one-bedroom apartment, and three-bedroom units are rare.

Some Riverwoods units would be reserved for residents with incomes below 60 percent of the average area income, while other units would be unrestricted, Paxson said.

Despite the still-rocky economy, Paxson said his company is hopeful about being able to build all three phases of the project instead of just the housing.

"It's going to be a really nice rendering," he said of the overall vision. "We put this together as a three-phase project that works today."

"There is a market for all the products that we have proposed," he said.

The project also received a federal loan that requires the property to remain affordable for 40 years, Robinson said.

John Mallamo, a Bel Air resident, said during the public comment period that he would like to see the revenue that would be lost to the county under the PILOT agreement.

The fiscal impact note was available on the council's website, although it was not discussed by Robinson or others during the hearing.

Although Mallamo said anyone who opposes the deal "would look pretty foolish," he explained he had a problem with the process.

"If there's a public hearing to discuss financial matters, then the financial matters ought to be pretty clear," he said.

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