In Severna Park, the suburb of manicured lawns and single-family homes, entire blocks of neighborhoods have grayed, many seniors have packed up and moved away and more than a few have died since the debate over whether to allow senior housing there began.

In the past decade, the emotional arguments have raged well into countless nights in crammed meeting rooms.

Those favoring senior housing did their best to rouse the community's collective conscience and get middle-aged homeowners to look ahead a few decades.

Imagine yourselves years from today, senior housing supporters urged their neighbors, old and frail and unable to maintain your homes, suddenly forced to leave your neighborhood because it provides no place for you.

But, for years, supporters found themselves far outnumbered by opponents, who said proposed projects would destroy the neighborhood's character, worsen congestion, invite more development, reduce property values and attract poor people from urban areas.

Now, at last, as even some of those who fought hardest against senior housing plans have found they too can no longer care for their homes, a long-debated senior housing community is coming to Severna Park.

A non-profit coalition led by Severna Park's Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church plans to build 80 to 100 condominiums for seniors that will sell for $100,000 or more each.

The condos would be built in the next 18 months on 10 acres the coalition is buying from the county off McKinsey Road next to the church.

They will probably be modeled after two-story cottages, with elevators and facilities accessible to the frail and handicapped.

The County Council, which approved less restrictive zoning that would allow the project on the parcel two years ago, agreed to sell the land in October.

The Woods project, offering meals and perhaps assistance such as housekeeping and limited nursing care, will become the first of its kind in Severna Park.

It's about time, says the Rev. Terry Schoener, the pastor at Woods Memorial. He's been fighting for the project for about eight years.

Schoener says he understood residents' fears of seeing their pretty suburban neighborhoods overrun by unbridled growth. Many residents fought that on nearby Ritchie Highway, he points out, and it happened anyway.

But Schoener says he had a much tougher time figuring out why some resisted senior housing for so long when doing so, in effect, forced many of their frail elderly neighbors out.

"You can't have a community where you don't provide for the elderly when they reach a certain age," Schoener says. "You can't just tell them, 'We have no place for you, so you have to go.' That's not a community.

"These elderly people have been contributing to this community all these years, keeping homes here, raising families here. Part of life is having the elderly around the young people, and the young people around the elderly. You can't just kick them out. A community with no place for its elderly is like a community with no place for its children."

Schoener says plans remain preliminary, and he's unsure of the price for the land or the complex. The coalition has raised about $60,000 to pay architects and lawyers and plans to recoup costs after selling the homes.

Unfortunately, Mary Hughes laments, senior housing is coming to Severna Park too late to allow her to stay in the neighborhood where she lived for more than 30 years and raised two children.

No longer able to maintain her home, the 74-year-old widow just paid a $123,000 entrance fee to move into a Catonsville retirement community.

"It's just seems so unfair sometimes," says Hughes. "There should be some place for us to go, for crying out loud. I love this place, I raised my children here, and I don't want to leave, but I really have no choice."

As the Woods plan forges ahead, another proposed Severna Park senior community died in the face of heavy community opposition.

Virginia-based Sunrise Retirement Homes Inc., whose elderly housing communities have won widespread praise and numerous design awards, wanted to build a 30,000-square-foot Victorian manor on two acres off Robinson Road.

Sunrise, a pioneer in filling the gap between independent apartments and nursing homes, which cost about three times as much, wanted to build about 45 "assisted-living" private or shared rental units. Plans called for units with kitchenettes in a community offering meals, maid service, help with daily tasks such as bathing and grooming, limited nursing care and a physician on call round-the-clock.

All costs would have been included in the monthly rent, which ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 at other Sunrise communities.

Sunrise officials, who have been building similar communities for a decade, say they normally receive a warm reception and have never scrapped plans because of community opposition.

Until they tried to build in Severna Park, that is.

Amid an outcry of public opposition, the company decided against appealing a zoning officer's August decision forbidding the project.

Carole B. Baker, the former County Council member from Severna Park who left her seat to become regional services manager for the United Way of Maryland, says the intensity of the opposition to that project and other senior housing plans shocked and troubled her.

Baker says some residents began talking about the need for senior housing 15 years ago, and the arguments against senior housing have changed little. Even the most vocal opponents agreed on the need for senior housing, yet fought every plan to build any, constantly speaking of the need to preserve the "character" of the community of single-family homes.

"In Severna Park, I had to fight tooth and nail every step of the way," says Baker, who helped work out a compromise enabling the Woods project to proceed.

"I had to fight a mentality that everybody gets their piece of land and their house, and once you got too old and were no longer in shape to handle it, too bad."

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