Residents of a North Laurel community are concerned that an elementary school and a deteriorating apartment complex aren't the best next-door neighbors.
The poor condition of the Whiskey Bottom apartments troubles community residents, and the complex's proximity to Laurel Woods Elementary School has them scared.
Residents say that the vacant units at the complex have become a location for drug activity and a target for break-ins. They're concerned that in cold weather, homeless people will take shelter in empty units.
"We're very upset about the fact that the complex is not even a block from the school," said Debbie O'Neil, whose daughter attends Laurel Woods.
Ms. O'Neil is one of several members of the North Laurel Civic Association who have been seeking information about plans for improvements at the apartment complex.
"As usual, it's going to take a child here getting molested before anything is done," Ms. O'Neil said.
Maryann Merigan, a vice president of Boston-based Krupp Companies, the owner of Whiskey Bottom apartments, said the company knows the complex has become an eyesore in the community.
Krupp has applied for refinancing of a $30 million loan through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If the loan can be refinanced through HUD at a lower interest rate, Krupp expects to proceed with plans to spend $3 million improving the complex.
Ms. Merigan said the company has been looking for financing for about two years.
"For anyone in the real estate business, finding financing is not an easy task," Ms. Merigan said. "Lenders are few and far between these days."
The apartments are badly in need of repair. The blue-gray paint is peeling, the porch supports look precarious and many units appear to be vacant. The units contrast sharply with another section of Whiskey Bottom across the street, which Krupp renovated a year ago.
HUD's Baltimore office wouldn't comment on the status of Krupp's loan application, saying it was still under review.
If new financing is approved, Krupp plans to begin the renovation by installing vinyl siding on the buildings and then proceed with the interior repairs, Ms. Merigan said.
She estimates that the exterior work will take about a year.
That kind of timetable doesn't sit well with area residents concerned about the safety and appearance of the neighborhood.
"Our school is the centerpiece of our community," said Donna Thewes, a North Laurel resident and president of the Laurel Woods PTA. "We don't have a lot of places to meet, and we're very protective of it."
Apartment residents said many of the units are vacant, but they weren't aware of any criminal activity in the complex.
"They try real hard to keep it as nice as possible," said resident Geri Burgess.
Sgt. Edward G. Buckman, who supervises county police patrols in eastern Howard, said the most common problem in the area is local youths using the vacant apartment units for drinking or using drugs. But he said the complex has not had any recent increase in breaking and entering and drug incidents.
Residents also are concerned that HUD's involvement in the project would mean conversion of the complex to federally subsidized housing.
The North Laurel area already has more low-income housing than other parts of the county, said Patsy Yingling, president of the North Laurel Civic Association.
Ms. Merigan said Krupp intends to maintain the complex as market-rate units.
Dismayed by the fact that no improvements will take place at the complex for at least a year, Ms. O'Neil contacted Maryland's U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes.
Aides from their offices suggested putting a fence around the school and encouraged residents to write letters to them, HUD and Krupp expressing their concern over the complex.
But Ms. O'Neil said they told her it wouldn't be unusual if it took at least two years for improvements to begin.
If the HUD loan isn't approved, Ms. Merigan said, Krupp intends to continue to look for financing to upgrade the complex.
"Our goal is to obtain the financing necessary to change the exterior of the buildings so the property is marketable," she said.