Senior home elicits community contention


Inside the large, white Victorian house on a tree- lined street in Old Catonsville are seven newly decorated bedrooms, six senior citizens -- and one simmering controversy.

Our House Beechwood offers rooms, meals, activities and health care to seniors, for about $2,000 a month. And it helps fill a need for senior housing in Baltimore County, which has the second fastest-growing population of seniors in the nation.

But some neighbors, who charge that group homes for seniors will change the face of communities, are worried about their proliferation.

There are at least two facilities like Our House in Catonsville, and several more under construction in the area. Countywide, at least 160 such homes have state or county licensing, and 17 more are seeking licensing, officials say.

"Young single families such as [mine] do not wish to be the minority percentage of age in Catonsville," said Kirby Spencer, president of the Old Catonsville Neighborhood Association.

"When will it stop? Is there a ceiling? What is our right as a single-family resident, who wants to be in a balanced, single-family community?"

Our House, in the 100 block of Beechwood Ave., was purchased by gerontological nurse Janet Feuerstein in September 1994 for $310,000. It looks like most of the large single-family homes in Old Catonsville.

But what happens inside is different: The seniors, some of whom have a degree of Alzheimer's disease or dementia, watch TV talk shows, play bingo and balloon volleyball, and eat dinner together.

Staff members cook and coordinate activities, and medical workers also are on call at the house, which can accommodate 12 seniors.

Such care exceeds what 91-year-old Gladys Nattress received at a nursing home, says her stepson-in-law, John Kloetzel. Because Our House is so small, staffers can pay more attention to each resident, he said, describing the atmosphere as "homelike."

"Gladys seems more relaxed and at ease," since moving to Our House in June, he said.

Seniors make respectable neighbors and role models, says County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, who represents the Catonsville area. But he and Mrs. Spencer fear staff will create more traffic around the homes.

"If they have cars -- your medical staff, your housekeeping staff, your cooking staff -- now you're taking up considerable parkingif you change shifts, you're going to put real traffic on the street," he said.

Mrs. Spencer says that more ambulances have been called on her block since Our House opened, and that one resident was seen walking the street.

She worries that Our House could bring many more like it. "It is going to very quickly destroy the reason they want to be in the community, because single families will move out," she said.

Mr. Moxley is considering proposing county legislation to regulate such communal homes, but he isn't sure what limits can be imposed.

Under a law passed early last year by the County Council, a home for as many as 15 seniors can open without special zoning approval, if the house needs less than a 25 percent expansion. The new legislation Mr. Moxley has in mind could reverse that bill.

But another Catonsville communal home for seniors has not created problems.

Lifespring Senior Housing, at 2200 Pleasant Villa Ave., is home to about a dozen seniors and the interior looks very much like Our House, with traditional furniture and large rooms for group activities. Members of the West Catonsville Community Association were initially apprehensive that Lifespring would make the neighborhood too commercial.

William J. Chupka Sr., former president of the now-inactive association, said some delivery vehicles drove at high speeds to the home, but otherwise it was not disruptive. "I can't say that I'm unhappy they're there -- they realy don't cause any concern at this point.

Mrs. Feuerstein predicted Our House, too, will blend in well with the area eventually, and won't cause traffic problems. "We only have one to two staff people in the house at a time," she said, and when the house reaches full capacity next spring or summer, only one more worker will be hired.

She added that assisted living units aren't sprouting up by the block. "I know the community is concerned they are taking over the neighborhood, but they're not going to put them that close together -- it'd be too competive."

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