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Rules About Crowded Schools Fuel the Graying of Arundel

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Since he moved in with his fiancee last year, Ostrom has not been able to sell his house. Now, real estate agents have started talking about an impending glut in the market.

"Yes, there's an aging population of baby boomers we can sell to," said Bill Lambros, a real estate agent. "But they can only absorb so much."

Some county leaders see other consequences down the road. For years, Anne Arundel schools have complained of being underfunded because of staunchly tax-averse county residents. With an increase in seniors who don't have children in school, it might become even more difficult to argue for higher taxes and increased funding, parents and school advocates say.

Compounding the problem are the impact fees normally levied on new homes to help schools alleviate crowding. Developers of age-restricted homes don't have to pay such fees because in theory their buyers have no effect on schools.

But some, such as Anne Arundel County Council member Edward R. Reilly (R-Crofton), say that logic is flawed. As older residents move from regular homes into age-restricted ones, Reilly argues, they are replaced by younger families who add students to schools.

Developers readily admit that their arguments to eliminate school-based restrictions are motivated in part by profit. Residential projects open to all ages generally attract more buyers and higher prices. But even slow-growth advocates agree that a continued boom in senior housing could pose a problem.

In recent years, Howard has encountered similar circumstances. Four years ago, 15 of its 37 elementary school districts were closed to new projects, and developers with age-restricted projects were allowed to jump to the head of the line. Shortly after, the pace of construction of housing for seniors grew to almost one of every three new homes.

By building schools and doing extensive redistricting, Howard now expects that none of its school districts will be considered closed because of overcrowding next year.

In Anne Arundel, however, school officials have largely avoided redistricting, which inevitably sparks controversy and angers parents. But with budget constrictions looming and many schools full, Anne Arundel's school board recently launched its largest redistricting effort in a decade.

The county also will have to contend with the impending base realignment and closure process at Fort Meade, which is expected to add as many as 1,700 more students. Meanwhile, a state-mandated change from half- to full-day kindergarten already has many elementary schools struggling.

Developers have argued for replacing the school capacity rule with a pay-and-go system similar to the one in Prince George's, where companies pay hefty surcharges to build near overcrowded schools.

"Something has to be done," said County Council member Jamie Benoit (D-Odenton), "but I don't think the council would entertain changing how we calculate school capacity. It's sort of a third rail in Anne Arundel politics."

Reilly said he wants to raise impact fees and use such funds to help areas with the most crowded schools. County Executive John R. Leopold (R), who has also talked about adjusting impact fees, said he plans to tackle the housing issue as the county revises the general development plan, a document that guides all growth in the county.

"Sooner or later, it's something we're going to have to address," said council member C. Edward Middlebrooks (R-Glen Burnie). "It's like seeing storm clouds gathering on the horizon. You look at them and you know something coming."

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