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Another slice of rural life set to go

The Baltimore Sun

Next year, bulldozers are to knock down the 82-year-old pale green farmhouse overlooking Rogers Avenue just east of U.S. 40 in Ellicott City and slice 15 feet off the crest of the hill on which it sits.

Rising there will be four-story apartment buildings surrounding a landscaped courtyard and pond that will obliterate the last remnant of an earlier, rural way of life. The apartments will house 152 upscale tenants age 55 or older.

It is an old story in post-World War II Howard County, where a mostly rural population of 36,172 people in 1960 had exploded by last year to 272,452 people living in mostly suburban surroundings, according to census figures.

This last segment of the old Sauter family farm is hemmed in by much newer tract homes on one side and a midrise office building on the other. It's within sight of car dealerships, shopping centers, and a mega-pharmacy on U.S. 40. Traffic on Rogers Avenue also has increased, especially with the Howard County government complex and district and circuit courthouses just down the street.

Still, each change, like the redevelopment of this 6-acre piece of a family farm whose owners once grew tomatoes where U.S. 40 runs, is jarring to those living nearby, as officials of Wood Partners, an Atlanta-based builder, learned at a recent presentation of their plan to the neighbors.

"We've got this little one-street community, and all of a sudden -- boom!" said Jennifer Rochlin, a resident of Oak West Drive, a row of detached single-family homes that line one border of what once was a 73-acre farm.

"We're going to go from a bucolic farmhouse view to seeing Route 40," John Gregg, another resident, said glumly.

He was quickly corrected by Anthony Morse, the builder's pre-development manager. There's no way anyone will see the highway over the large new buildings, he said.

Jack Weber, who lives on Cara Court behind the site with his wife and three daughters, said he installed a large picture window in the back wall of his house just so his family could see the huge oak tree on the Sauter property. The tree was cut down recently.

"My three daughters and my wife cried when they ripped down that majestic oak," he told Morse and Scott M. Zimmerly, Wood's development associate on the project.

Zimmerly said the company wants to save as many mature trees as possible, but that this one was right in the middle of the hill, and the tree's roots spread so far it couldn't be retained. The county requires a 30-foot setback around the property perimeter, which should allow most trees to stay.

Traffic is another major worry for residents. Morse and Zimmerly said the only access to the apartments will be from Oak West Drive, a half-block from busy Rogers Avenue. The residents have visions of dozens of vehicles lining their small street in rush hours, waiting to exit onto Rogers.

"You're taking 150 cars and trying to get out onto Rogers Avenue?" asked a skeptical Laurie Gregg. "Have you tried that in the morning?"

What would happen in an emergency, if the entire neighborhood needed to exit at once, she wondered.

Gregg, Rochlin and the other neighbors have become used to seeing the acres of grass, the big trees and solitary old house, and the idea of a busy, multistory apartment complex was not a welcome thought.

However upset the current residents are, Mary Catherine Sauter and her family saw far more changes over the decades. Her son, who still lives nearby, has become resigned to them.

"Things change," Sauter, 75, said stoically. He did not attend the meeting, he said, since the family no longer owns the property.

Mrs. Sauter died seven years ago at 91, and her family cleared the place of her possessions two years later. The family sold the last 6 acres to Security Development, a local firm owned by relatives of the Sauters, for $650,000, according to assessment records. The most recent assessment doubled the property's value to $1.2 million, records show.

Wood Partners is the contract buyer, Zimmerly said, but Security partner James R. "Rob" Moxley III declined to disclose the sale price.

Morse and Zimmerly worked to convince people in the neighborhood that the firm will be a good neighbor, and that the new buildings will be an asset. Their firm has built 20,000 homes in the past decade.

"Our bread and butter is garden apartments," said Zimmerly.

More recently, the firm created a unit to specialize in buildings for active seniors, a fast-growing demographic in Howard and across the nation.

The buildings will look luxurious and be attractive, both men said.

"It's definitely not going to be on the low end or anything to worry about," Zimmerly said at the meeting of about 20 neighbors.

The new buildings will have a 6,000-square-foot clubhouse, a lounge, cyber cafe, a spa or hot tub and maybe a greenhouse, Zimmerly said. He showed residents conceptual drawings of the type of buildings being planned, though details could change over the winter as the company works with county officials on an acceptable design.

The parking lots will have 226 spaces, and Morse said the firm would try to ease traffic congestion using any means the county requires. The edges of the property will be heavily landscaped and lights will face down to avoid shining on nearby homes.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments will average about 1,200 square feet, and they'll rent for up to $1,800 a month.

"Oh, my heavens," said Susan Rura when she was told of the rent. She is a nearby resident who said her family has lived in the area for decades.

William Sauter still often passes the property, but he's trying to remain calm about what's coming.

"I hated to see the place go at the time, but it had to go," he said. "There's no way we would pay the taxes on it" as land values rose sharply.

When the bulldozers appear, he said, he'll be prepared.

"I'm not going to look up that way," he said.

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