The developer of a 32-bed assisted living facility, which is slated for a former dental office building in the 900 block of South Main Street, has been granted a special exception to build in a part of town zoned for residential office use.
Multiple regulatory approvals from the Town of Bel Air, as well as the state, are needed before construction begins, however. Those approvals will be sought following a 3-0 vote in favor of the special exception by the town’s Board of Appeals during the board’s meeting on Thursday, April 20.
“We have a long road [ahead],” applicant John Watts said while testifying before the appeals board.
Watts, of Baldwin, appeared before the board with attorney Bradley Stover, of Bel Air, who led the presentation.
Stover asked questions about the project of Watts, as well as surveyor Samuel Hutchins of STH Land Services LLC and Christina Van Deusen, who is serving as a consultant on operating the assisted living facility. Van Deusen has a master’s degree in social work and has worked in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities for the past decade.
The group presented the proposed site plan as well as renderings of what the facility will look like.
The special exception granted by the appeals board allows the desired use – assisted living facility – in the residential office district. The RO zone typically applies to parts of town that have single-family dwellings, but also heavy traffic, meaning they are better suited for businesses established in the residential structures.
“These areas are generally gateways to the Town Center and should be developed to ensure compatibility with existing residential uses while providing an attractive public frontage and a sense of arrival to the Town’s historic core,” according to Bel Air’s zoning code.
Watts’ project involves renovating and expanding the existing two-story structure at 908 S. Main St. and building a new two-story building on the vacant lot next door at 910 S. Main Street.
The properties, which are a combined .94 acres, are off Route 924, the state-maintained highway that becomes Main Street within the town limits. The building and grounds, which are surrounded by tall trees, are next to the office building at 900A S. Main St. – the shared driveway serving both buildings will not be used for the assisted living facility. A new entrance and exit will be built along South Main Street, and that must be approved by the Maryland State Highway Administration.
The plan shows the entrance leading to a driveway loop that goes around the first building. Seventeen parking spaces are proposed, as well as an area for picking up and dropping off people.
The property abuts the Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School campus on its west side, and the Wakefield Meadows subdivision is just to the south. Landscaping will be planted to serve as buffers between the facility and its neighbors, according to Hutchins.
“At a minimum, the board must find that the proposed use does not create an adverse impact to the surrounding properties or neighborhood, and that all the performance standards outlined in the development regulations are addressed,” town Planning Director Kevin Small said, describing the criteria for special exception approval.
Stover asked questions of Hutchins, Watts and Van Deusen, as they provided details about the project to the appeals board. Board members, as well as members of the public, also posed questions to the presenters.
Each building would have 16 beds, with one dedicated as a “memory care” unit serving residents with cognitive impairments, including those diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
The doors and windows in the memory care building would be secured, and Watts must submit a security plan for approval. Staff also would be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week to care for the residents.
“I do plan to invest in anything that I can to keep everybody safe,” Watts told board members.
Supporting the community
Watts, a custom home builder, said he wants to build the assisted living facility based on his family’s experience years prior when they were trying to find a facility for his grandmother.
He noted there was a long waiting list for a space, and his grandmother ended up getting a room in a large facility with a ratio of staff to residents that “just didn’t work.”
The proposed facility for South Main Street would have four staff – two per building – working during the day and two staffers at night. The number of people working during the day could go up to three, depending on how many residents are in the memory care building, according to Van Deusen.
Staffers would help residents with daily tasks such as bathing, showering, getting dressed, oral hygiene and using the bathroom, according to Van Deusen.
Each resident would have a room, which Watts described as a “suite,” of 300 to 500 square feet with a bed and bathroom. Facility amenities include a hair salon, private chef, theater and space for indoor recreation activities such as shuffleboard. The developer also plans an outdoor seating area and porches.
“I anticipate [doing] whatever I can to make it better for the community,” Watts said of the facility.
Watts will enter contracts with a licensed operator to run the facility, as well as a private ambulance company. Hutchins noted the facility’s proximity to University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, as well as the MedStar Health medical center along Route 924 in Bel Air South.
The residents’ families will be responsible for providing transportation if residents need to get to a doctor’s appointment or go elsewhere in the community. Residents can have visitors at any time, but typical visiting hours are expected to be between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., according to Watts.
The project prompted some concerns about increasing traffic and disturbances from family visits or an ambulance call at odd hours of the day or night.
Leo Knighton, who works in the office building next door at 900 S. Main St, noted that there already is a lot of traffic in town from ambulances, and “that could be disruptive” if the assisted living facility adds to that.
“[Route] 924 has a lot of traffic, and when you come out in the middle of the day, make a left-hand turn, you take your life in your hands,” Knighton said.
Appeals board member Shannon Abel also expressed concern about increased ambulance calls and “family coming in an out all night long.”
Vice Chair Greg Adolph, who chaired the meeting as Chair Richard Gerety was absent April 20, said his grandmother resides in an assisted living facility. He is usually the last person out of the building when leaving after a visit around 8 p.m. He also noted that other assisted living facilities in Bel Air experience “very limited use at night.”
Adolph said he does not expect ambulance visits will be commonplace at the proposed facility.
“If it is, so be it, in the sense that, we are a community of people, and this is a use that is necessary, at least in my mind,” he said.
Town resident Steve Chizmar, of East Broadway, said he has some concerns about the scale of the project and ensuring there are proper setbacks between the facility and neighboring properties, as well as the sidewalk along South Main Street. He expressed support for the project overall, however, and for granting the special exception.
“Our population is aging, so we need more of this kind of facility in town,” Chizmar said.
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