The controversial proposal for an age-restricted housing development called Bethany Glen had its debut before the Howard County hearing examiner on Wednesday, opening up what is set to be a lengthy and contentious hearing process.
Elm Street Development is seeking approval for a conditional use zoning permit to rezone a 67-acre property in Ellicott City and build 238 housing units restricted to residents age 55 and older. The proposal has drawn the ire of those living nearby, who say the additional housing would bring too many residents to an already congested area.
The proposal last made headlines a year ago, when the project went before the county’s Design Advisory Panel, which requested revisions be made to make the housing designs more in-line with the surrounding neighborhood. Elm Street Vice President Jason Van Kirk said the company has made several revisions to the project since then, including decreasing the number of detached single family homes and villas, and instead proposing additional attached townhouses.
Currently, the proposal includes plans for 172 villa-style attached houses, 25 single-family detached houses and 41 single-family attached townhouses. Van Kirk said the company was ready to “be all ears” to the hearing examiner, but is confident the project meets the terms for approval.
Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre opened the hearing by laying out her testimony ground rules, meant to regulate the proceedings as they continue over the next several months. LeFaivre specifically ruled out testimony regarding several hot-button issues that have previously been related to the case, including last year’s Ellicott City flood, stormwater management facilities and the county’s adequate public facilities ordinance.
Much of Wednesday’s hearing was what LeFaivre called the “opening act,” as Van Kirk’s testimony, which took up much of the night, laid out the background of the development. Subsequent hearings will include more chances for cross examination from the opposition and additional testimony from both the developer and consultants, as well as those in opposition.
Van Kirk did answer a few cross examination questions, including how the development would enforce its age restriction; he said residents can self-report to the community’s homeowners association, which has the ability to fine residents that are in violation of community regulations. Any resident, whether in the development or not, can also report a suspected violation to the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, which can investigate and potentially fine a person found in violation of zoning rules.
Hank Alinger, the director of planning for Bohler engineering and a consultant on the project, also testified at the hearing. Alinger is a member of the county’s Design Advisory Panel, but recused himself for this case.
Alinger’s testimony outlined greater details of the development’s plans, including designs for greenery buffers between existing roadways and housing.
Despite not being able to testify at the opening hearing, opposition residents were out in full force, many of whom are members of the Howard County Association for Responsible Planning, or HARP, which has long been critical of the proposal.
Carolyn Weibel, a HARP member and 18-year area resident, said the group would ideally like to see the county buy the land and build a park, but admitted that was “now probably not even in the picture.” She said she doesn’t believe the developers care about the quality of life of the area’s existing residents.
“The traffic up there is absolutely horrendous,” Weibel said. “The density of homes is already horrendous, and this is just one more thing where the developer walks in and does what he needs to do, and doesn’t care.”
The next hearing is Monday, Dec. 18 at 6 p.m., with a third continuation hearing scheduled for Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. LeFaivre said additional hearings are expected to be scheduled in 2018.