Almost five years later, Severna Park residents have not forgotten a proposal to build 84 apartment units at 134 Ritchie Highway to accommodate workforce housing. That project was again on their minds as the county council voted along party lines this July to pass new affordable workforce housing incentives.
“It [was] calling for four multistory apartment buildings, which would have abutted directly on single-family homes on two sides,” Severna Park resident Chris Ronk told the county council on July 1. “On the third side, it was across the narrow local street from single-family local homes. But the fact that it was on Ritchie Highway on one side made the planners and advocates think it was perfect. It was not.”
A 2011 Anne Arundel County bill allowed workforce housing as a special exception, granting developers in some cases to build up to 22 units per acre on land designated for low-density single-family homes. Following the Earleigh Station proposal, the county council voted to remove special exceptions from R2 and R5 residential districts.
This July, the council debated County Executive Steuart Pittman’s proposal, Bill 54-19, to allow developers to build 22 units of housing per acre in R5, R10 and R15 residential zones, and in commercial and industrial zones, under certain conditions. The property must be located on a collector or higher classification road served by both public water and sewer. At least 40% of the homeownership units must be occupied by a household with an income that does not exceed 100% of the area median income. At least 60% of the rental units must be occupied by a household with an income that does not exceed 60% of the median income. All adequate public facilities tests must be met — school capacity, road and utility tests. All environmental rules must be obeyed, including critical area.
Pete Baron, government affairs officer for Pittman’s administration, said that over the next four years, an estimated 1,174 households will not be able to find housing they can afford in Anne Arundel County.
“It frustrates me that we’re building all of this stuff and the average price of a new unit, single family, is $600,000 and the average price of a townhome or even a condo is $400,000 and it’s out of the price range for so many people and that just, to me, feels wrong and we have to fix that,” Pittman said. “I’m not saying it has to be in Severna Park. It has to be in the county.”
Barbara Daniels, fair housing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the state pegs the deficit of affordable housing in the county at 21,517 units. “We’ve got a mismatch between the county’s growth as a major regional job center and one of the fastest-growing residential areas in the region and the zoning,” she said.
Republicans on the county council were critical of Pittman’s administration for sharing information with only the Democrats before the bill was introduced. Several Republican amendments were shot down before the final vote was tallied.
“Outside of the [General Development Plan] and comprehensive zoning, one of the criteria to have a parcel rezoned is that the characteristics of the surrounding parcels no longer are consistent,” said District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler. “By increasing the density in R5 specifically, I feel that we are opening ourselves up to a domino effect of requests for increased zoning either residentially or commercially.”
Pittman said he felt uncomfortable with the “way it went down,” so he attended the Greater Severna Park Council meeting in July to answer questions from his constituents.
“To be honest, on this one it became very partisan and I think the wrong assumption got made that only the four Democrats were going to support it and the three Republicans weren’t,” Pittman said. “Land use issues aren’t partisan issues ... The agenda moving forward – we’ve committed to both sides that we’ll be talking to them and we’re going to try to use a system where we reach out in advance.”
Greater Severna Park Council President Maureen Carr-York and other meeting attendees told Pittman their frustrations with the bill were related to the character of the neighborhood, not the income level of new residents.
“We have folks living in town on vouchers in almost every community. We are not afraid of diversity,” Carr-York said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is that when you start putting big buildings in these little communities, that’s the damage.”
The Department of Planning and Zoning estimated that the new bill might lead to only one new development, but that didn’t allay the fears of people worried about overcrowding and traffic. Pittman sees workforce housing as a potential remedy to the traffic problem.
“We reduce traffic by making it possible for people to live, work and play in one area so they don’t have to drive as much,” Pittman said. “Right now, we have a lot of people driving out of the county to go work in Baltimore and D.C. and a lot of people driving into the county because they can’t afford to live here and they work in a job where it doesn’t pay a whole lot.”
Pittman said just because a bill has passed doesn’t mean the discussion is over.
“We’re not going to go back and then try to overturn this bill,” he said. “We’re going to try to fix the whole system and make it so it works and do the form-based code where we don’t do these projects that are big multi-family stuff next to single-family stuff.”