Cliffton plan speed alarms residents

County affordable housing scheme panned

Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

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Staff photo by CARRIE LOVEJOY
The entrance sign at Cliffton on the Potomac is undergoing repairs after a motorist hit it recently.

Issues of motivation and accountability have taken the forefront in the continuing conflict between Charles County leaders and Cliffton on the Potomac residents upset at the affordable housing development planned for the Newburg area.

"The county wants to meet with the community but they're trying to get it done real quick. I think we need time for us to meet and figure out where we're going," said Mike Seman, a Cliffton resident and organizer of the July 26 meeting between residents and the county administration. "I don't think everyone is totally against it; we want [new] homes that are built comparable to the homes on the street."

"The county commissioners, they're apologetic now, but if we hadn't stood together and called for meetings, it's obvious they would have put houses up without any concern for the neighborhood," said William Posey, the president of Cliffton's volunteer citizens association. "Why do we have to hurry up and push it through before the primaries? This is a small neighborhood, a quiet neighborhood. We need some input. It's our neighborhood."

"When we first took office in 2006, one of our goals was to provide work force and affordable housing," said Commissioner Sam Graves (D), the District 1 representative for the Cliffton community. "It's a goal that's been pushed for some time now. We've picked it up and kept moving forward with that. For four years we've been trying to build affordable and work force housing and Cliffton provided the opportunity to do that.

"I don't do anything like that just for elections. This is being done because we've been afforded an opportunity to build two homes fairly quickly that will be priced for affordable housing," Graves added.

In June, the commissioners announced that the county had entered into an agreement with Lenhart Development Corp. that will lay the foundation for Lenhart to build some 500 homes on the land just north of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge and for the county to use its 100 lots in that area for work force and affordable housing options.

County Attorney Roger Fink explained that the reasoning behind this form of agreement would allow for a development project that would help the current Cliffton residents, future homeowners and the environment.

"As a normal project this would be your typical sprawl development with 165 single-family dwelling units on three-acre lots — private well and private septic," Fink said.

"It would pretty much close our Cliffton area development. [Without the new plan, t]he moratorium would still be in effect. The 100 county-owned lots would never be built on" and there would be no treatment plant upgrade or waterfront development.

What it comes down to, Fink said, is the choice between finishing out the Cliffton area with fewer than 200 units and upgrading the plant to lessen pollution in the Potomac while at the same time developing the county- and privately owned lots.

To address the failing sewage treatment center there, Lenhart will partially pay to install an enhanced nutrient-removal system to handle the larger capacity. The current plant's capacity is set at 70,000 gallons per day while the new system will be able to handle 300,000 gallons per day. Fink said a rough estimate is a $7 million price tag.

By entering into a public-private partnership, Lenhart can develop its property by clustering the 500 or so units instead of spacing them out on three acres each. This frees up open space — around 200 acres — and will create the "economy of scale necessary to finance the plan," Fink said.

The development project will be financed via the connection fees to the upgraded treatment plant. Each new home as well as the county lots and existing private lots will hook into the new system.

The county's current connection fee is around $3,500 per housing unit, but there might be a special connection fee based on financing the upgrade of the treatment plant, Fink said, which could push that cost up to $5,000.

Fink said the county has made calls to Mirant to discuss an agreement whereby the plant would use some of the Cliffton effluent, which further would reduce discharge into the river. The Mirant plant uses water in its scrubbers and cooling systems.

The county will be building affordable housing units on its lots while Lenhart will be building work force housing options on its property.

"Because of the public-private partnership, [Lenhart] will be doing all of the design and construction of the homes and the sewage treatment plant," Fink said.

The homes will be built in accordance with the impending agreement between Lenhart and the county's housing authority board. The board also will approve the home designs and will be monitoring the selection and qualification of future buyers.

The homes will be single-family units around 1,100 square feet with a price tag of about $130,000.

While the two homes might be on the fast track, the entire concept is one that will take 10 to 20 years to accomplish, Fink said. The two homes are the beginning and end of the first phase of the development agreement. They were approved by the county's housing authority board, a body that will continue to have significant input and participation in the planning and administration of the affordable and work force homes.

The homes will cost about $110,000 to build.

The next step the county will take will be to draw up an agreement between the housing authority board and developers as to how to protect against any future home buyers turning a profit on the new houses should they decide to leave after a year and sell it for market value.

"We would like the housing authority board to have control over the [sale], so that it can remain as affordable housing," Fink said.

There will be negotiations and finalizing of a utilities agreement, which will lay out exactly how the new treatment plant will be financed, designed and who will pay for what.

Both the county and the developer said that process — beginning to end of construction — could take about two years and must be finished before anything else can move forward.

Once all of that is done, there will need to be a project agreement for the entire Cliffton area, which will cover everything from economic development to environmental concerns to maximum build-out, Fink said.

This will require amendments to the comprehensive plan, rezoning, and amending the comprehensive water and sewer plan and land use plans.

"All of that has a public process with public notices, public hearings and work sessions. It is a major undertaking that will take quite a while," Fink said.

Shortly after that announcement the board approved a development agreement, $112,500 budget amendment and $130,000 budget transfer request for the first phase of the plan.

A groundbreaking ceremony had been scheduled for July 27 but was postponed to a later date because of the Cliffton community's public outcry about property values dropping, damage to the environment and the alleged backdoor dealing that created the resulting plan for two new development projects.

"What I sense from some of the people is their frustration and their fears are of the unknown," Graves said. "If they know the facts they may develop a comfort level with that.

"I'm glad we had the opportunity to listen to their concerns. Like I said at that [July 26] meeting, when we first took office in 2006 we recognized that the government was not reaching out enough."

Website postings, notices in the newspapers and mailers all are used as ways to communicate with residents, Graves said. And while there might not be a way to reach 100 percent of the county's residents, "we keep trying."

Graves said he wasn't aware that Cliffton had its own citizens association but had he known, he would have sent the group information about the project.

He mentioned that communities like Bannister and Swan Point have associations and they have mechanisms to communicate with the county and vice versa.

"Our association is a voluntary association. It's not a mandatory one. A lot of the residents don't even participate. That's one of our problems, and we're not very strong because of that," Posey said. "Because of the housing issue, we've got some more people concerned."

That being said, in the more than 30 years Posey has lived in the Cliffton area, he said the various county administrations "have done nothing for the neighborhood. They won't even come and put a park bench out for a little park."

Requests to get the neighborhood's access road lengthened to eliminate the residents' wait in traffic for cars going over the Nice Bridge have been ignored, Posey said, although the turn toward Cobb Island was slightly extended.