Opponents of a proposed multistory housing complex for the elderly in Silver Spring are claiming a major victory following a Circuit Court judge's ruling that the Montgomery County Board of Zoning Appeals erred when it approved the 152-unit complex at 16th Street and Second Avenue.
Members of the Woodside Citizens Association had challenged the zoning board's opinion, arguing that the five- to seven-story apartment complex was too massive to be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood of 175 single-family detached homes.
Circuit Court Judge James S. McAuliffe Jr. agreed and criticized the appeals board in a 30-page transcript released this week for trying "to engraft a giant" onto a residential neighborhood.
McAuliffe said that, in approving a special exception for the project, the zoning board disregarded an earlier ruling by its own hearing examiner against the proposal and then incorrectly calculated the scale, size and topography of the complex in its own deliberations.
Edmund Rennolds, president of the Woodside group that brought suit against Oxford Development Enterprises, said he views McAuliffe's decision as significant for several groups currently fighting developers who want to put high-rises on small parcels in older, residential communities.
McAuliffe "agreed with us that it was patently ridiculous to say that people in the neighborhood wouldn't see this building," Rennolds said. The opinion should make it "very difficult to pass the test of compatibility" required to get a special exception, he said.
Jerry Glaser, vice president of Oxford Development's Mid-Atlantic offices, said the firm will wait until it receives a written transcript before deciding whether to appeal the decision to the Court of Special Appeals.
Glaser said Montgomery County has a "clash of policies" between its desire for housing for the elderly and its restrictive zoning practices.
Glaser, along with many other would-be developers of similar high-rise projects for the elderly, particularly objects to a bill being debated by the County Council that would bar entrepreneurs from building high-rises on parcels smaller than four acres and require buildings taller than 45 feet to be set back further from nearby roads.
"Clearly there is a conflict that needs to be resolved between the county's stated goal of wanting housing and services for its elderly in the older locales where they live" and where sewer, water, roads and shops are already built and "its zoning policies which are making it more and more difficult to develop the remaining parcels in these older areas," Glaser said.
Rennolds said his group is opposed not to housing for the elderly but to projects the scale of Oxford's Silver Spring Springtown proposal.
"We would welcome a smaller, garden-apartment project for the elderly. But this proposal and similar ones in Bethesda are targeted not for the needy but for those seniors who can pay $1,200 a month in rent," Rennolds said.
Glaser said housing for the elderly is designed to appeal to homeowners who want to put their home equity into another investment. "The $1,200 is not all rent," he said. "It is a meal service, security and health services."
In his opinion, McAuliffe also took issue with the way the zoning appeals board chose to expand the borders of the Woodside neighborhood to test the compatibility of different types of housing.
McAuliffe said it was "inconceivable" that high-rises on the northwest side of 16th Street were included in the neighborhood's boundaries merely because they were visible to residents on the other side of the six-lane thoroughfare.
"This community, the neighborhood against which this project is to be measured, does not consist of high-rises across 16th Street; it consists of 175 single-family residences," the judge said.
Meanwhile, Glaser said he and other developers will continue to lobby against further closing of zoning loopholes.
"Montgomery County has not really looked at its rejuvenation strategy for aging neighborhoods," Glaser said. "If further restrictions are passed, it will make . . . projects [for the elderly] either very difficult to do or very, very, expensive. It will be a pretty bad blow."