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Exemptions asked for 3 developments

The Carroll commissioners heard three more petitions for exemptions to the county's growth freeze yesterday, one for 35 senior housing cottages near Westminster and two for projects that would add 131 residential lots to the crowded Mount Airy area.

The commissioners will not rule on the exemption requests for at least 10 days.

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County planning director Steven C. Horn recommended that they allow the senior housing project to move forward but suggested the commissioners deny the exemption requests for the two projects around Mount Airy.

The spate of exemption requests is part of a widespread attempt by Carroll developers to circumvent the yearlong freeze, which closed the door to about 1,700 residential lots that had passed earlier stages of the county's development review process.

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One developer sued the county after the commissioners passed the freeze June 10, and more than 20 have filed administrative appeals, the first three of which are scheduled to be heard by the Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday.

The commissioners have granted one exemption - for a $40 million, 100-unit expansion at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville.

They have expressed a general willingness to allow senior projects to move forward, saying the county's rapidly growing elderly population needs housing. Carroll's population of residents age 55 and older grew from 22,000 to 29,000 between 1990 and 2000, according to Census data.

The city project would add 35 cottages to a senior housing center, Bonds of Westminster, and would include 185 units by its completion in 2007.

Fire officials have expressed reservations about letting the senior housing projects move forward, saying elderly residents strain Carroll's tight resources. Several asked the commissioners not to grant an exemption for the Westminster project.

"I certainly have no idea how the Carroll County government will handle the continued growth involving elderly care and retirement communities, however it is very clear that volunteers will be unable to keep up with the growing number of calls for service," Westminster Fire Chief Kevin R. Utz wrote in a letter to the commissioners.

Horn, however, said the county probably could reach a compromise with fire officials. "An example of a way to address this issue may be to create a condition of approval which requires private ambulatory services on projects of this size and type," he said in his report to the commissioners.

An attorney representing the developers also struck a conciliatory tone.

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"These are genuine concerns and forward looking," said John T. Maguire, attorney for Cranberry Realty. "It creates a healthy discussion."

The residential projects outside Mount Airy received a colder reception.

The two subdivisions being developed by Forty West Builders Inc. were before the commissioners because of a clause in the freeze that offers possible exemptions for projects being considered for annexation by the county's eight municipalities. The clause was included so the county's towns could continue to grow as they see fit.

Mount Airy considered annexing the properties in question last year. But Forty West removed its requests to have the subdivisions annexed in October because the company would be able to develop more lots under county zoning laws than under town zoning laws.

Because the projects are no longer being considered for annexation, they don't meet the intended purpose of the exemption clause in the county's freeze, Horn said.

That did not stop the developer's attorney, Anthony P. Palaigos, from presenting a case to the commissioners. Palaigos argued that the freeze puts into jeopardy a $6.8 million loan Forty West received to help it buy the land for the subdivisions. Because of the freeze, the bank could ask Forty West to pay back the loan immediately, a hardship that would devastate the small developer, Palaigos said.

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"Our family's life and basic fortune are tied to every project we do," said Steve Costello, owner of Forty West. "We hoped the project would see us into the future."

Costello's words echoed those of many developers who decried the freeze before it was passed.

Like many others affected by the measure, he had received certificates from the county saying his projects would not strain county fire, school, water and road services. Costello said he got his loans on the assumption that the certificates guaranteed his right to proceed.

But Horn argued that the subdivisions would strain schools and emergency services. For example, Mount Airy Middle School is projected to be at 120 percent or more of capacity in each of the three years the projects would add homes to the area - 2005 to 2007.

Several Mount Airy residents who attended said the town cannot deal with more growth.

"We're worried," said Joe Armacost, whose son attends fifth grade at a middle school because the town's elementary school is too crowded. "The town needs time to catch up."

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Mount Airy's mayor also objected. "To allow an exemption for a piece of property that is directly outside the town boundaries would be inconsistent and disrespectful of the town's goal to manage growth," Mayor James Holt wrote to the commissioners.


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