Charging that their neighborhood already has too much subsidized housing, residents of Wheaton and Silver Spring are protesting proposals to build moderate- or low-income housing on a patch of land at the intersection of University Boulevard and Sligo Creek Parkway.
About 70 homeowners who gathered for a strategy session recently made plans to attend a Montgomery County Council meeting tomorrow, when the council has scheduled a straw vote on the use of the approximately 16-acre site.
Zehra Post, a protest organizer, said 466 persons signed letters or petitions protesting the plans for the site by the Jan. 15 deadline for submitting testimony.More signatures have been gathered by protest leaders since then, Post said, although she did not have an exact count.
The council is to decide whether the land should be designated a public facilities area. That would open the way for development of housing on part of the site, leaving the rest for park land.
The county Housing Opportunities Commission has proposed construction of 72 townhouses for poor families, which would leave about 5.6 acres of the site as undeveloped park land, according to Herb Levy, development planner for the commission. Eligibility would be established by family income, with the maximum for a family of four set at $16,200. Federal subsidies would help pay the rent.
Another proposal, discussed at the homeowners' meeting by County Council Member Elizabeth Scull, calls for construction of 20 moderately priced townhouses.
"An area can absorb subsidized housing to an extent, but not with five (projects) in one block," charged Eileen Cotter, president of the Sligo -- Branview Community Association, referring to the Housing Opportunities Commission proposal. "We're just infuriated."
The plan could mean construction of homes on both sides of University Boulevard, adding, in Cotter's view, two new low-income housing projects in a neighborhood that already has a four-story apartment building for the handicapped, a high-rise complex for the elderly and townhouses for low-income families.
"If that's not the creation of an economic ghetto, I don't know what is," Cotter said. "We have been facing the raping of our down county area park land for too long."
Levy said the Wheaton area has only one low-income project of 24 townhouses and therefore is deficient in its share of housing for the poor.
"That's a curious argument," he said of Cotter's complaints. "Suddenly, housing for the elderly or the handicapped has a massive impact on the neighborhood. I find that very distasteful.
"Everybody feels dumped on. They come up with a lot of reasons why something shouldn't be near them. Essentially what they are saying is, 'We want richer neighbors than us.'"
Walter Schuler, president of the Wheaton Citizens Association, argued that the county is "trying to get 72 units into a piece of land so small, there's no way it's supposed to have that many units. It's big enough for maybe three houses."
The density proposed is less than six units per acre -- compared with the 12 units per acre permitted on an adjoining piece of privately owned land on which a developer plans to build townhouses, Levy said.
Council member Scull said it is unlikely that the council would approve the plan for 72 units. She said the council is more likely to approve construction of 20 townhouses on one side of University Boulevard, with the rest of the site left as park land.
The 20 units would be moderately priced -- not subsidized -- housing, Scull said. They would be sold at below -- market prices to the middle-income county residents such as teachers, young professionals and retirees, she said. Once sold, the homeowners would be on their own, with no federal subsidy.
Even that proposal met with opposition. "What about just park land?" one woman shouted angrily.
Scull's proposal is similar to one recently defeated in the more affluent Potomac community. Moderately priced houses would have been built on half of a 20-acre unused school site, leaving 10 acres for a soccer field.
The proposal was defeated by a 6 -- to -- 1 County Council vote after more than 400 Potomac residents turned out at a public hearing, charging that the county was reneging on a promise to build three soccer fields.
That action was cited by the Wheaton and Silver Spring residents who are now fighting their own housing battle.
"Screaming works, and maybe now's the time to start," Cotter said.
Once purchased by the state for a highway that was never built, the land is to be sold to the county for the original purchase price plus annual interest charges.
If the council votes in favor of the public facilities designation tomorrow and again the following Tuesday, planning would begin.
Another public hearing would be held on those plans -- whether for subsidized or modereately priced housing -- before construction could begin.