Developers of a proposed moderately priced apartment complex in downtown Brunswick have applied for $17 million in financing from the state. But after an hour of direct questioning, the City Council was still uncertain if it had enough information to support the project's application.
The project, known as Railroad Square, is a 51-unit apartment complex proposed for 9 S. Maple Ave. The structure would be built as a collaboration between property owner Scot Lessler, Verdant Development Group in Frederick and Woda Cooper Cos., an Annapolis-based development and management company, to bring workforce housing to downtown Brunswick.
Mayor Jeff Snoots called a special workshop on Tuesday so the council could ask questions about parking, fees and school capacity. Many of the councilmen focused, however, on how the developers could seek financing when the project had not yet been approved.
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of chicken-and-egg games in this process," said C.J. Tyree, development vice president at Woda Cooper. "Any developer that submits for tax credits, very rarely have we gone through the whole process. In fact, most of the time we haven't gone this far."
On May 18, Woda Cooper Cos. applied for a $2 million Rental Housing Financing loan and a $1.5 million low-income tax credit from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. The tax credit would be paid over a 10-year period, totaling $15 million, Tyree said on Wednesday.
The Department of Housing and Community Development sent a letter to the municipality on May 22 giving the council 45 days to comment on the application.
Tyree explained the council did not have to commit its support to the project in the comments, and that it could choose to not comment at all. However, Snoots and Councilman Carroll Jones were concerned that silence would be interpreted as consent.
"I think that the letter is going to have to be something that is very conditional, that we're willing for them to move ahead with this without any guarantee that we're going to support the final product," Jones said.
Jones' opinion was echoed by the majority of the council except Councilman Tom Smith, who motioned to send a letter to the agency to reject Woda Cooper's application. Smith's motion did not get a second.
Instead, the city will pivot to addressing the next major roadblock to Railroad Square and other vacant properties in Brunswick.
The council agreed in a 4-1 vote to update the city's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which will include provisions for age-restricted housing and a pay-as-you-go option for new developments. Smith opposed the motion, and Councilwoman Angel White was absent.
Among the chief concerns of the current ordinance is the lack of flexibility for dealing with school crowding.
Brunswick Elementary School is anticipated to be at 111 percent capacity next school year, and out-of-district transfers are restricted, according to Frederick County Public Schools enrollment projections. The city's ordinance states that elementary schools will be considered adequate only if enrollment is at 105 percent or less of its state-rated capacity.
Crowding is less of a problem at the middle school — which is predicted to be at 69 percent capacity next academic year — and high school, which will be at 82 percent capacity. Facilities are adequate if enrollment is 110 percent or less at these grade levels.
The county Board of Education tests whether proposed development projects meet the ordinance's standards, and if they fail, then the project is dead, City Administrator David Dunn said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
"If it fails, it fails," Dunn said.
That is why the city is now considering adding special provisions to its ordinance.
Age-restricted housing — built for seniors or people ages 55 and older — has been exempt from school adequacy standards in other jurisdictions, because they don't add students to the schools, Dunn said. Brunswick is looking to add similar language.
More controversially, however, is a provision to allow developers that fail the school adequacy test to set money to cover the cost per pupil it will generate over the adequacy threshold, Dunn said. This process is called pay-as-you-go.
"The idea is that money is then set aside for further expansion of the school or building a school," Dunn said.
On Tuesday, Smith asked Planning and Zoning Administrator Bruce Dell how many children could be expected to enter the school system from a 51-unit apartment complex like Railroad Square. Dell estimated between six and 10 children would live in the complex, and approximately two would enter at the elementary level.
Dell said the earliest a draft of the updated ordinance could be sent to the Planning Commission would be September.