The Patuxent River Habitat for Humanity's proposal to build 35 duplexes along Great Mills Road in St. Mary's County on land that the group wants the county to donate ran into some resistance from the county commissioners last week.
During a meeting Tuesday, the nonprofit organization asked the county to donate the land to support efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity, which uses volunteer labor by the eventual homeowner and others, has built six houses in St. Mary's and Calvert counties since 2003.
The organization's president, Chuck Stein, said he wants to build five to nine houses a year in St. Mary's, but the group faces a new problem.
"We are out of land in St. Mary's County," he told the commissioners and others during the meeting at the St. Mary's County Airport.
To solve that problem, Stein asked the Board of County Commissioners to donate 13.6 acres of county land near Great Mills High School to provide housing for 70 families. Stein said the property is an "ideal location" for the housing because of its proximity to bus routes, employment centers, and water and sewer services.
Habitat for Humanity would acquire the funding for the design and engineering, Stein said, as well as any infrastructure. If approved, the project would take about seven years to complete, he said.
But Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) expressed what he called "serious reservations about the proposal."
Raley said he had advocated the county's purchase of the land to keep residential development from encroaching on the school and to keep it open for the possible expansion of government services buildings. He said he didn't oppose Habitat for Humanity building homes in other areas.
"My problem is the property in question," Raley said.
Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said he did not like the idea of building a community of duplexes because he had once lived in a duplex and said they did not always inspire the best relations between neighbors. Jarboe said he envisioned more of a "nice cottage community" of single-family homes.
"People like to have their own place," he said.
Stein said switching to single-family dwellings would mean only half as many families could be served by the project. He called duplexes, at about $85,000 each, the most efficient use of the land.
Jarboe added that he wanted to check with the Board of Education to see whether it was interested in that land.
Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly (D-Leonardtown) said that he shared Raley's concerns and that he was wary of "concentrating low-income housing" in one area.
The most enthusiastic praise of the proposal came from commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), who called the idea a "terrific start."
McKay said the Great Mills High School area could be a good place to handle residential development because the school has the lowest enrollment of any high school in St. Mary's, and its student population is under the state-rated capacity. He said other properties were available for any expansion of county services.
"I don't know of any targeted use for that land," McKay said of the Great Mills Road property.
He urged the commissioners to "open our minds to new ideas."
During the presentation Tuesday, the commissioners heard from June Castro, 50, who was living in a run-down trailer with her five children until she helped build a four-bedroom house through Habitat for Humanity in the San Souci neighborhood.
As she recounted the story of finding an opossum in her trailer and her home being flooded after the pipes broke on Christmas Eve two years ago, she suggested that her travails illustrate the difficulty of finding affordable housing. Castro, a St. Mary's College of Maryland graduate, said she had applied for and twice received government housing subsidy vouchers, but each time no affordable housing was available. She applied to Habitat for Humanity last year and broke ground that November, and the house was completed by the end of January.
"It was a blessing that words cannot describe," she said, urging the commissioners to "please be a part of the solution."
"This is a great way to provide houses for families who can't afford" them, she said.