New homes, not offices, planned for county land in Ellicott City

Land once intended for a new Howard County government complex in Ellicott City will instead be the site of 163 townhouses, according to a developer's plan scheduled for presentation to the public Tuesday night.

Ellicott Mills Overlook is the latest change in one of Howard County's oldest areas of suburban development, near U.S. 40. A 150-unit Alta at Regency Crest apartment complex for seniors is under construction on a former farm remnant across Rogers Avenue, and plans are to eventually redevelop the nearby Normandy Shopping Center and the adjacent former Miller Motors Ford dealership across the divided highway.

The $5.5 million sale price for the county's wooded land will help pay for renovations to the county government's George Howard Building just down the road from the roughly 26 acres on Rogers Avenue, where developer Donald R. Reuwer is planning the townhouse project.

The county bought the land in late 1999 for $3.2 million, but gave up on the government center idea as too expensive. Reuwer bought an acre of privately owned land to add to the county tract, which he purchased last month.

The public presentation will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ellicott City Senior Center, 9401 Frederick Road. Developers are required to present their ideas to the community before submitting a plan for county review.

"We're kind of looking at this as kind of a new gateway to Ellicott City," Reuwer said. "It's the major way into the town. The hope is to celebrate that."

He said the new homes would be screened by existing trees and hillsides on the steep site, and would be designed as an eclectic mix of buildings that fit into the old mill town's look and feel.

Reuwer and architect Charles Alexander said the steep slopes and small stream running through the property made it unsuitable for offices without a lot of expensive earthmoving.

"The topography was an interesting challenge," Alexander said. "We wanted to use the buildings to fit into the site. That's the way Ellicott City works."

Most of the new homes, with four types of units, are to be clustered near Rogers Avenue, while others would line an extended Ellicott Center Drive that is to connect the main entrance on Rogers Avenue with Ridge Road on the property's southern side. The new road would enable motorists northbound on U.S. 29 from Columbia to exit onto Ridge Road and then go north straight to Rogers Avenue without using U.S. 40, as is now required.

The site's zoning requires that about 10 percent of the land be used for commercial purposes and that at least 35 percent be left as open space. A two-story, 19,000-square-foot, barnlike building would be either all offices or a combination of offices and retail stores to comply, Reuwer said.

Ten homes at the rear of the site are to be designed for seniors, with a master bedroom suite on the first floor; 10 more would be for moderate-income families. Of the three-level townhouses intended for buyers of all ages, 78 would have one-car garages, 18 would have two-car garages and 57 will have no garage. The houses would vary from about 1,726 to 2,000 square feet, with options that include an extra rear room. Builders haven't yet come on board, Reuwer said, and he was unsure what the units would sell for.

"You have to have a crystal ball," Reuwer said, to predict prices in this weak economy.

The community would likely have a walking path and several large artistic structures at the front meant to evoke Ellicott City's history. Reuwer said his team has gone through about 15 variations of the design concept, which could change again before building begins in about two years.

Several nearby residents who three years ago had reservations about the apartments now under construction said they are interested in hearing about the new plans.

"I'd prefer farmland, but who wouldn't?" said John Gregg. "I'm pretty much ready to roll with the punches."

But he said he is worried about an increase in traffic on Rogers Avenue, and he suggested that a roundabout might be needed.

Susan Rura, who lives on Rogers Avenue, said she can't judge until she gets all the details, but adding housing in an area without a supermarket or other amenities that people can easily walk to gives her pause.

"We're chockablock with houses and people," she said, and the nearest food store is across U.S. 40. "It's going to be fairly dense in this area."

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