Here, homecomings are commonplace

For Karen Blue, moving to the Village of Oakland Mills in Columbia was a homecoming.

After growing up in the community, she left at age 20 and lived in a variety of neighborhoods in the Baltimore area. There were Woodbine, Baltimore City, New Carrollton and Edgewater. But after marrying and starting a family, it was time to return to her roots.

"My parents still live here," Blue said. "I have a 5-year-old daughter, and I know how important it is to have her grandparents be a part of her life."

Blue is not the only one who has come home to Oakland Mills. Many of her childhood friends are once again neighbors. "There's a lot of second generation here," she said.

Each of the village's three neighborhoods has its own swimming pool. "If you live in Oakland Mills, you can walk to the pool," she said.

Blue and her husband, meanwhile, are preparing for an August opening of their restaurant, which is just across the street from where they live. Called the Blue Cow Cafe, it will offer both dine-in and carryout service, featuring sandwiches, salads, coffees, ice cream and "environmentally friendly" produce.

"We wanted to do something community-oriented," she said. "We've been listening to what the neighbors want and hopefully we'll provide it all."

Blue's community involvement also includes serving as a member of the village board. One of the board's key concerns right now is who will become the anchor tenant in the 32-year-old village center.

For years, Giant Food Inc. operated a grocery store at the center until it closed in 1997. The center then went through a $3.5 million renovation, and Metro Food Market came in, and space for the grocery store was expanded from 24,000 square feet to 43,000.

However, Metro closed its operation in April, leaving a void - and a headache for the community.

"Members of the community are actively pursuing grocery stores they think would succeed there," said Village Manager Erin Peacock.

These efforts are spearheaded by the Support Our Center Committee, made up of several dozen residents.

"They really care about their village. They're not just going to sit by and let the village center fail. They'll support the merchants that are there and work to bring in a new store," Peacock added.

The cornerstone of the village center is a pair of former dairy barns built in 1947 on the original Oakland Manor property. After purchasing the land, The Rouse Co. decided to keep the barns and renovated them for community use. They now house the village community association, a teen center, meeting rooms, party facilities and a U.S. Postal Service office.

Oakland Mills was named for a historic mill. Its neighborhoods - Stevens Forest, Talbott Springs and Thunder Hill - were named for the original farms and land tracts in the area dating back as far as 1709.

The streets in Oakland Mills take their names from the works of Carl Sandburg, Andrew Wyeth, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

With about 9,700 residents, Oakland Mills is neither the largest nor the smallest Columbia village. But it is one of the oldest, dating to 1969. Amid its abundance of mature trees, the homes are smaller than those in the newer villages and are more moderately priced.

About half the dwelling units in the village are single-family homes. The others are townhouses and apartments. A two-story, four-bedroom, single-family contemporary home with a finished basement was recently offered for $187,500. Once on the market, homes usually move quickly.

"People are extremely happy here; they're staying so long," said Peacock. "There are lots of empty nesters."

She credits the low enrollment - in Howard County, many schools are over capacity - at Stevens Forest Elementary School to the many original homeowners with grown children and who want to remain in Stevens Forest. The kindergarten at Stevens Forest is the only elementary in the county that offers open enrollment for out-of-district families, according to the Howard County public school system.

Schools were what attracted the Bacmeister family to Oakland Mills three years ago. A temporary work assignment had taken the Bacmeisters from Alexandria, Va., to Germany. When it was time for them to return, Elena Bacmeister asked her parents, who live in Baltimore, to help her family find a house to rent.

With two children and one on the way, their top priority was a good elementary school - one with strong test scores.

After some long-distance research, Bacmeister directed her parents to look at homes in Oakland Mills. In addition to the schools, she liked the idea that the area was affordable and accessible to Baltimore as well as to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where her husband was planning to work.

The Bacmeisters are purchasing the house from the owners. In addition to being happy with the school - a five-minute walk - they've found that the neighborhood has everything they want.

"The house is a little bit small for us, but there's so much about this area that works for us," she said. "I've been very impressed with how involved people are in the neighborhood. They're real concerned about our village."

Bacmeister also likes the close-knit feel of living in a small community.

"I see the same people at school, at the pool, at the stores. And there are lots of activities for the kids - swim team, soccer," she said. "People here help each other out with the kids - we look out for each other. This is simple stuff, but it really makes a difference."

Oakland Mills

Commute to downtown Baltimore: 30 minutes

Public schools: Thunder Hill, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs Elementary schools, Oakland Mills Middle, Oakland Mills High

Shopping: Village centers at Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, Hickory Ridge, Dorsey's Search; Snowden Square, Dobbin Center, Columbia Crossing, The Mall in Columbia

ZIP code: 21045