Proposed 35-unit apartment building, which would include affordable housing, advances in Westminster

Catalina Righter Carroll County Times

Attendees of the Westminster Common Council meeting on May 13 view a rendering of a planned affordable housing apartment building in Westminster. (Courtesy Photo)

A developer is looking at an oddly shaped section of land between the College Square shopping center and the merge point of Md. 140 and West Main Street for a new apartment building that would include affordable housing units.

But Conifer Realty LLC needs a zoning allowance to move forward with construction on the proposed 35-unit apartment building. And on Monday, the Westminster Common Council voted unanimously to apply the Compatible Neighborhood Overlay District to the section of land, allowing greater design flexibility.

Their task was to vote on whether the property met the qualifications for the overlay district. Approval of the site plan is a separate process to come later.

The council heard details about the project at its meeting a week earlier, on Monday, May 13.

The council heard details about the project at its meeting a week earlier, on Monday, May 13.

William Mackey, director of community planning and development, said the purpose of the Compatible Neighborhood Overlay District is to allow for a design of a “unique project that is not subject to regular setbacks, parking requirements, and other restrictions. This greater design flexibility is to promote creative projects and provide expanded housing choice,” according to the official minutes of the meeting. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that the council approve the application.

The property in question is technically five parcels that total about two acres. It’s owned by Western Maryland College Inc., which entered a purchase agreement with Conifer Realty LLC, a company that develops, owns and manages affordable, multifamily apartment buildings.

The property is adjacent to the College Square shopping center and is bordered by Md. 140 to the north and West Main Street to the south. On the opposite side of West Main Street is a residential community of single-family homes.

Kyle Speece, Conifer Realty’s regional vice president of development, gave an overview of the project.

Conifer participates in the Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which gives a tax credit to private companies that build or rehabilitate affordable rental housing. The program is competitive and is done through the Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development.

This means that units in the building would be reserved for renters with an income that is below 60% of the area median income. Nine of the 35 units would not be restricted under this program and will be rented at market prices.

Speece said the best term for the apartments would be “workforce housing. ” The National Association of Realtors characterizes this as housing “that can be reasonably afforded by a moderate to middle income, critical workforce and located in acceptable proximity to workforce centers.”

This is not subsidized — meaning the tenants pay rent. Potential applicants will be screened for credit history and criminal background, Speece said. Criminal activity would violate the contract and be grounds for termination of a rental agreement.

Rental rates have not been set, but Speece said the low end was about $500 per month and the higher end was $1,100 per month. Units would rent for about 30% of an applicant’s income.

Councilman Greg Pecoraro commented that this was lower than comparable apartments in the city that can run in the $1,600 range.

Councilman Tony Chiavacci asked whether Section 8 housing vouchers would be accepted. Speece said the Section 8 program can either apply to units or to tenants. The units would not be part of the program, but fair housing laws stipulate that potential tenants with Section 8 program vouchers be allowed to apply.

Pecoraro said the starting salary for a Carroll County Public Schools teacher is about $34,000 per year, and therefore they would likely be able to apply for apartments under the program.

Scott Wolford, a registered landscape architect and certified planner with Maser Consulting who has worked on the preliminary plan, said a goal for the site has been to build vertically to reduce the footprint and environmental impact. It’s planned to be three stories with most parking located underneath the building.

Chiavacci asked the planners to consider whether there would be difficulty accessing the property in the case of an emergency if there is one way in and out on West Main Street.

Architect Bruce Zavos, who has worked on many affordable housing projects, shared preliminary drawings of the design. He said the location was appropriate for the project because it’s in a good area of transition between commercial development and residential development.

The next step for the property is to go into site planning with input from city’s staff. The project must show that it obeys ordinances like those related to wastewater management and forest conservation before it can pull permits.

One member of the public, who identified himself as someone living nearby on Washington Road, spoke during public comment to ask whether his property would be affected by the overlay zone if he decided to build on it or sell it.

Mayor Joe Dominick said his property would not be affected by the overlay zone.