Maryland's fastest growth creates problems

Tim DeArros, manager of Clarksburg's Upcounty liquor store, helps Nancy Scalone, who moved from Philadelphia two and a half years ago, with a purchase.
Tim DeArros, manager of Clarksburg's Upcounty liquor store, helps Nancy Scalone, who moved from Philadelphia two and a half years ago, with a purchase. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Drive along Snowden Farm Parkway in Clarksburg and you can catch a glimpse of two completely different worlds. On one side, a landscape of narrow roads snaking their way around rolling hills, still snow-covered and dotted with farm equipment and red barns.

But across the road, the bucolic scene gives way abruptly to rows of half-finished town homes and handsome brick-and-stone multistory houses, packed tightly together and abutting Little Bennett Elementary School.

The scene hints at the explosive, sometimes painful, growth hitting this part of Montgomery County — officially the fastest-growing area in Maryland. Census data released this week showed that Clarksburg's population grew by more than 650 percent in the last decade, to nearly 14,000.

"The growth is just like 'boom,' " said Maggy Fagan, an administrative assistant for Michael Harris Homes, who was showing a 2,800-square-foot model home on Brick Hearth Circle on Thursday.

"People want to get out of the city and the hustle and the bustle. They'd rather just ride along," she said, mimicking the area's gently rolling roads with a sway of her arm.

County officials have long planned for and expected the growth in Clarksburg, as the Washington suburbs pushed further and futher north along Interstate 270. But there have been growing pains, too, with residents saying they did not get the retail developments and infrastructure promised in the county's master plan for the town, approved in 1994.

All over Clarksburg, road signs warn drivers of streets that abruptly come to an end. There is just a single retail center, a small cluster including a Subway, the Upcounty liquor store, a beauty salon, and an insurance agency. The Mayorga Cafe on the end of the strip went out of business not long ago, its doors locked and the orange interior unlit.

"There's just not enough foot traffic," said Nancy Scalone, who moved here 21/2 years ago from Philadelphia. Just eight or nine months ago, her home was the only one standing on her block; now the whole block is filled, said Scalone, who commutes to a job in Gaithersburg.

When told that Clarksburg's population has increased six-fold in the last 10 years, few in town are surprised.

"That is a significant number," said Nancy Floreen, an at-large County Council member, "but really, Montgomery County planned a series of cities along our growth spine along the I-270 corridor, and Clarksburg has for us been the last frontier."

Growth has brought diversity to Clarksburg, where minorities made up less than 10 percent of the 1,834 residents in 2000. By last year, it included 6,065 white residents, 2,027 blacks, 4,625 Asians and 1,348 Hispanics, according to Census data.

"It's extremely diverse, and that's one of the fabulous, fun things," said Tim DeArros, who manages the Upcounty liquor store in the Clarksburg Highlands shopping area on Stringtown Road.

Nearby, employees at the Subway shop conversed in Spanish with each other in between serving the stream of sleekly dressed businesswomen on Bluetooth devices and tow truck drivers stopping in for lunch.

Residents were promised "a little treasure in the middle of all this green space," DeArros said, including a true mixed-use development. Instead, while townhomes and single-family homes have gone up at a frenzied pace, major retail centers — especially a grocery store — have not arrived to serve the thousands of new residents, he said.

Scalone said she must drive about three miles to Germantown to do her grocery shopping. The lack of amenities, DeArros said, is the major factor slowing Clarksburg's growth.

"By now we should be twice the amount of people we are," DeArros said. Clarksburg's location, nestled along I-270, is perfect for commuters heading to Virginia, Washington, and other towns in Montgomery County, he said.

The planned retail project has been hindered by several factors, including the recession and disputes over financing.

The heart of the unincorporated community, Clarksburg Town Center, remains unfinished years after the developer pledged to build a substantial shopping complex there, with a grocery store, eateries and shops. Residents had complained about six years ago that the developer was deviating from the original plan for the community, and after being threatened with fines, the company pledged to finish more than $10 million worth of improvements, including the retail center.

Lynn Fantle, president of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, says the developer has said no retailers are interested in building there because the plan requires construction of an expensive multi-level parking garage. The plaza envisioned in the original plan, where shoppers would stroll, now is just an open hill.

The developer, San Diego-based Newland Communities, also has said it lacks the money to finish some of the town center's internal roads, after the county council refused to go along with plans to levy a tax or fee on all property owners to help pay for infrastructure.

The lack of a retail core apparently has hindered commercial development in outlying neighborhoods as well. The county planning board has balked at approving a supermarket in another neighborhood because the master plan requires development at the town center first.

"The challenge … is really that the slowdown in the economy caught Clarksburg just as it was beginning to flower," Floreen said. "We have not yet seen the town center part of it develop as vigorously as we wanted to see happen."

The county's priorities for Clarksburg, she said, are increasing school capacity, building a library, and attracting more retail.

On Thursday, DeArros attended to the two or three customers who arrived looking for beer and cigarettes. He helped one longtime customer, Doris — "one of the originals," he said — carry her purchases to her car, and tut-tutted at a young woman buying a cigar.

His dream in moving to Clarksburg in 2002 was to own a burger joint and be able to live next door or upstairs, like storeowners in south Philadelphia, where he grew up. At the very least, he said, he should be able to walk to work from his home in Clarksburg Town Center, less than a mile away from the liquor store.

But the road isn't safe, he says, and the promised bike and walking paths have yet to be fully built.

Still, residents make do, and have come together while they wait for retail to arrive.

Wine tastings at Upcounty are well-attended, DeArros said. Women have their bunco clubs, men have their poker games, and neighbors look out for each other during snowstorms. And in the summer, neighbors order pizza from the shop next door, pop open cans of beer, and sit outside on Upcounty's patio.

If a proposed transit line is built in the I-270 corridor, DeArros said, the last decade's explosive population growth will look modest in comparison.

"As desperate as we are for retail and the social life and some offices and businesses and jobs, and jobs and jobs, it's still a bedroom community that is right next to the highway and can get people to work," he said. "If they bring us the light rail, Clarksburg will grow by a geometric proportion."

Baltimore Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.