CECILTON — Two months after raising concerns over the gifting of land for a planned senior housing project and new education center, the town council unanimously approved Monday the transfer that paves the way for the long-discussed project.
In May, Cecilton council members and residents questioned Mayor Joe Zang about the project’s status in the approval process and concessions negotiated to bring it to fruition.
The project dates back to 2014 as Zang expressed the desire for a senior housing project in town to Frank Hodgetts, CEO of Home Partnerships Inc., a nonprofit facilitator of multi-family housing development that also completed the North Street Residences project in Elkton.
Over the last five years, the project’s size has fluctuated, at times planning for as many as 44 apartment units and as few as 12 ranch-style units on 8.11 acres of town-owned land near the Dollar General and town water tower. After consultation from state officials, whose grant support is needed to help subsidize the cost of the project, the plan now calls for 20 ranch-style apartment units for those 55 or older.
As a part of that plan, the current Head Start building fronting Route 213 would be demolished and replaced with speculative commercial strip mall. A new education facility would be constructed to the rear of the property near the water tower.
Council members grew concerned, however, after they became aware of a July 2018 signed development services agreement between the mayor and Home Partnerships for a 60% reduction on utility hookups for the project.
Zang explained that the concessions he was proposing were $221,000 in the appraised value of the two vacant lots to be developed into the school and housing — the nearly 2-acre commercial aspect would be retained by the town for now — and $171,462 for reduced hookups, totaling $392,462.
“We don’t write a check, we don’t give any money ... we simply use those figures to determine the value that we are participating,” he said. “The state needs a certain amount of money so we can get that much of their grant.”
In return, the state will be contributing more than $6.8 million in grant and loan funding and the town would still take in more than $130,000 in hookup fees and roughly $5,460 in annual property taxes.
A number of officials connected to the project attended Monday night’s meeting to lobby on its behalf, including Chris Benzing, executive director of the Maryland Rural Development Corporation, which operates the Head Start programs, and Andy Stansfield, chairman of the Home Partnerships’ board of directors.
Currently the Cecilton Head Start center serves 17 families who drive their children to the programs, but Benzing said that MRDC would double its number of served families in the next year.
“What Head Start does is not only work with the students, but also the parents to get them education services and job training services,” he said, noting the nonprofit also provides housing programs for families. “We just don’t have the space needed.”
Zang, who serves on the MRDC board, agreed and noted to his council members that the project would leave a lasting impact on the entire southern county.
“Right now (the center is) in pretty deplorable shape,” he said. “The state sees Cecilton and the surrounding community as a tremendous opportunity to invest state dollars into the community.”
Benzing has also already expressed a desire to lease a space in a prospective strip mall for an early childhood education center, which would support pregnant mothers and children ages 6 weeks to 3 years old. He said such a program could support another 25 families.
“I’ve talked to (Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development) Secretary Ken Holt a number of times and he’s very jazzed about having a corporate business partner as a part of this as well,” he said. “So the state is backing not just the back end, but also what the town wants to do on the front side too.”
Zang explained that the impetus for the senior housing project was a conversation with lower county senior citizens who expressed a desire to stop paying property taxes and having to maintain a home, but not have to move far away.
Under the terms of the state loan program, six residential units will serve households with income at or below 50% of area median income, nine units will serve households at or below 60% of area median income, and five units will be market rate. Two units will also be compliant with Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, a federally mandated accessibility program.
Stansfield explained to the council and audience that while his organization was the developer, it is a nonprofit that operates off grants and grassroots fundraising.
“Our mission is to help people realize the American dream of homeownership,” he said. “We tackle projects that a lot of other groups and private, for-profit developers would likely never look at because the upside would be very minimal.”
Stansfield said that Home Partnerships has spent $260,000 out-of-pocket to date on engineering and consultation fees for the Cecilton project, but they need the state grants to kick in to move the project forward. In order for that to happen, the land needed to be conveyed to the developer.
A management company will be brought in to oversee the day-to-day operation and upkeep of the community, Stansfield said, noting that company has not yet been selected and the town could provide input on which company would be selected. He did add that such a company would need other nearby communities, however, as 20 units would not be enough for many companies to sign on.
While the hourlong public hearing over the project drew some long pauses as the council asked questions about its facets, Councilman Charles Ringgold, who joined the council the night that his colleagues began questioning the project, may have summed up their feelings best.
“Eventually we’ll get the money back for this over time, but the main purpose for this is the school and our seniors,” he said, moments before voting to approve the land transfer.
Editor's note: This story originally identified Kenneth Holt as secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning. In fact, he is secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. We regret the error.