Rules About Crowded Schools Fuel the Graying of Arundel
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
When Where to Retire magazine pronounced Annapolis one of the hottest new places for the retiring set, the superlative was received in some quarters of Anne Arundel County with mixed feelings.
For the past few years, residents and local leaders have watched as a rising share of new homes sprouted up throughout the county exclusively for residents 55 and older -- a result of local policies designed to prevent overcrowding in Anne Arundel schools.
Now, the trend has some worried that the graying of the population is reducing voters' support for school funding and might eventually drain county services and revenue. Some also fear that a senior housing glut is on the horizon and that younger buyers will be unable to find affordable housing.
The boom in age-restricted housing stems from a policy that states that once a school fills up, no new homes can be built near there unless they are for buyers 55 and older, developers say. The school capacity rule has restricted new residential construction on roughly 60 percent of land in the county, much of it in desirable high-density areas. As a result, developers say they have been forced to build homes for older buyers or nothing at all.
"It isn't because we developers think there's a demand for age-restricted housing. It's because that's all we can get," said Eliot Powell, president of Whitehall Development LLC.
The longer developers hold on to land waiting for school attendance zones to reopen, they say, the more money they lose in carrying costs. Michael DeStefano said his company, Sturbridge Homes, waited years for open seats at Arundel High School to free up a 60-acre property he hoped to develop. Eventually, he decided to build a 262-unit condominium for those 55 and older.
In 2002, 13 percent of projects preliminarily approved by the county were seniors-only homes, a total of 95. Last year, 25 percent of projects were for seniors, a total of 517 units. And this year, a massive community in Odenton called Two Rivers gained preliminary approval for 2,065 units, more age-restricted units than the previous five years combined.
Other Maryland counties have dealt with crowded schools in ways that typically don't encourage senior housing.
In Prince George's, developers are not banned from building near overcrowded schools but pay hefty surcharges. In Montgomery, officials say restrictions on road congestion -- rather than school crowding -- are usually the issue. Howard's restrictions are similar to Anne Arundel's, although somewhat looser. But unlike Anne Arundel, Howard has recently managed to free up school spaces, so age restrictions don't apply.
Anne Arundel's planning department believes the impact of such housing remains to be seen. "It's something we're watching, but it's a market-driven issue," said outgoing planning director Lois Villemaire. "The developers wouldn't build it if the demand weren't there."
Gene Ostrom was part of that demand when he moved into his subdivision two years ago. The new neighborhood felt like a little piece of paradise. The 78-year-old retiree discovered tai chi classes at the community clubhouse and took up ballroom dancing. When his wife died, he even found a new dance partner right next door -- a woman who became his fiancee.
"If done the right way, these communities are great. You know, I've never had as many friends and activities in my life as I do here," Ostrom said. "But if you keep building and building these homes, you know it's going to have consequences."