Eldersburg residents wary of senior housing proposal

Just about the only excitement in the semi-rural residential neighborhood near the intersection of Oklahoma and Bennett roads, in Eldersburg, is provided by occasional errant motorists who misjudge the sharp downhill curve on Oklahoma where it approaches Bennett from the northeast and either end up in a ditch or in somebody's yard.

But the billboard-sized banner that one homeowner recently put in his front yard — along with dozens of smaller signs that pepper Oklahoma Road — reveal that this neighborhood, where old and new residential subdivisions abut a few remaining farms and a stretch of the Liberty Reservoir watershed, is in the midst of a controversy.

The signs along the roadway express opposition to a proposed retirement community that would include three, four-story buildings with a total of 235 living units, 100 of which would be assisted living units.

The facility would be built on a residentially-zoned, partially wooded 16-acre tract known as the Ely Property, on the south side of Oklahoma Road not far from the Oklahoma-Bennett intersection.

Dozens of residents have registered complaints and concerns in a flurry of letters and emails to the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission, saying, in part, that the project would change the character of their community of single-family homes.

And they've made their feelings known at several public meetings and hearings that have been held about the project, which is being proposed by Rockville developer Marc Silverman, who also developed the Sunnybrook Retirement Center, in Westminster.

Chief among concerns are for increased traffic on Oklahoma Road, noise and light pollution, environmental impact and the ability of local emergency responders to adequately deal with an increased concentration of elder residents, many with disabilities or health problems.

The specter of declining property values is another thread that has run through public comments.

For the 40 or so residents who packed the County Office Building's hearing room on April 17 for a planning concept review hearing, the prevailing sentiment was that the proposal would simply be a bad fit for the neighborhood.

"Eighteen years ago, my wife and I bought into that dream that I see every time I cross the (Liberty Reservoir) bridge and go past that sign that the county spent many thousands of dollars to put up at the county line," said James Arnold, who lives in the 5800 block of Oklahoma Road, across the street from the Ely Property.

"That sign says 'Welcome to Carroll County! Feel right at home!' Now I feel like they are taking that dream away from us," Arnold said.

At the Tuesday, April 17 hearing, residents said the buildings, which could be as high as four stories and as long as 400 feet, would be located on a hillside and would tower over the surrounding area, detracting from its rural character.

Jan Carter, a longtime resident of nearby Mineral Hill Road, questioned if such a retirement facility could have an effect on neighboring property values.

"One tenet that has remained essential in Carroll County land use planning is to conserve the land and property value of the community and the neighborhoods," Carter said.

He reminded commission members that they are "tasked with that responsibility."

But developer Marc Silverman made an impassioned case for the facility.

He cited surveys showing that the average retiree prefers to stay within his or her "comfort zone" by not moving more than three to five miles from their previous residence when down-sizing to independent- or assisted living housing.

He said that in the 15-mile radius from which his facility hopes to draw, there are more than 20,000 residents 62 years of age or older.

"We cannot afford to lose these senior citizens," Silverman said, referring to Carroll County and the greater Eldersburg/Freedom area at large. "We have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide them with affordable housing."

Silverman also insisted the complex would not create traffic patterns different from those that would result if the property was subdivided into the conventional half-acre lots permitted under the property's current zoning.

He said the project would be "a development that all of Carroll County can be proud of. ... It will have a positive economic impact, and it will benefit the entire county."

Several planning board members, including Alec Yeo, expressed varying degrees of skepticism about locating a high-occupancy facility in such a setting. Yeo made it clear he plans to vote against the current site plan, because it is "too big and in the wrong place."

Board members also raised questions about adequate parking, and requested that the site plan be reviewed by the county's Design Review Committee. Several also noted that the developer should make a stronger effort to make the plan conform to the characteristics of the neighborhood — by having lower buildings and more extensive setbacks.

George McCubbin, who lives on Oklahoma Road, reiterated the overriding concern that many of his neighbors shared.

"The mass and scale of those buildings just doesn't fit into the surrounding community," he said.

Additional hearings and meetings will be conducted as the project makes its way through the planning review process. In addition, residents have tentatively scheduled a community meeting about the project with District Five County Commissioner Doug Howard for April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the South Carroll Senior Center, on Mineral Hill Road, in Eldersburg.

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