Being a pioneer isn't easy. Ask Brenda Walker.
She wanted to open the first assisted-living home for senior citizens in Baltimore County. Two years of plowing through the bureaucracy and thousands of dollars later, Miss Walker still isn't there.
But in part because of Miss Walker's experience and those of others, the county is trying to make it easier for operators of these small group homes to get past the county's development and zoning hurdles and provide housing for members of a rapidly aging population.
About 138,000 residents 60 years or older live in Baltimore County -- the largest number of senior citizens in any Maryland subdivision. According to Dr. Phillip H. Pushkin, director of the county Department of Aging, the rate of increase in the county's elderly population is second only to that of Dade County, Fla.
Yet Baltimore County is the only subdivision in the metropolitan area that does not have any state-certified assisted-living homes for the elderly -- even though the state started its program 17 years ago.
These homes, which house between four and 15 residents with 24-hour supervision, are designed for seniors who need some living assistance but don't require skilled nursing care.
"Group assisted-living homes for the elderly is a less costly, more community-based alternative to nursing homes," said Dr. Pushkin.
The county Planning Board has approved a proposed zoning law change, which will now to the County Council, that would create two classes of assisted-living homes.
"Class A" regulations would govern existing dwellings that require conversion of no more than 25 percent of their floor space to become assisted-living homes. A Class A home would be permitted by right in a residential zone and would have a limited exemption from the county's development review process.
An existing home that needs more than 25 percent conversion, or a new building constructed as an assisted-living home, would be a "Class B" home. A Class B facility in a residential zone would require a special exemption from the zoning commissioner. It would also be subject to the county's full development review process -- including a formal community input meeting.
Although the Class A home would not require a community input meeting, it would require a less formal community informational meeting.
Currently, any group assisted-living home for seniors in a residential area requires a special zoning exception and a full development review -- an expensive process that can take years.
"The type of people we generally come in contact with who are interested in being assisted-living home operators have neither the time nor the money to go through all of that," said Dr. Pushkin. Previous administrations in his department, he said,
had little interest in the issue.
Miss Walker said she never anticipated problems when she sought to open an assisted-living home in the 2200 block of Pleasant Villa Road in Catonsville.
"I don't mind being a pioneer, but I never dreamed it would take so long or be so expensive," said Miss Walker, who wound up paying attorney and engineering fees as well as fees for real estate experts and surveyors.
She had to get a special exception from the zoning commissioner even though she made few changes to the former mansion she purchased. And she had to provide a detailed development plan even though she wasn't developing anything.
On top of that, the neighborhood community association initially fought her efforts.
With the help of the county, Miss Walker is still trying to get financial assistance to put in a needed sprinkler system before she can receive state certification.
Dr. Pushkin said there are some small, uncertified group assisted-living homes in Baltimore County. They are not illegal but they don't come under state standards which require at least four inspections a year.
Certification, Dr. Pushkin said, guarantees the health and safety of the residents.
Dr. Pushkin said that there are 54 names on a waiting list of people who have called his department expressing interest in starting an assisted living home.
And he predicted up to 10 assisted-living homes within a year of the bill's passage.