It wasn't a joyous occasion when John Myers, a manager for Clorox in Atlanta, broke the news to his wife, Robin, that they would be relocating to the company's Aberdeen facility. The Myerses loved their congenial small Georgia town and worried they'd wind up in an anonymous suburb in Maryland.
"But when we saw Bel Air," Mrs. Myers says in a genuine Southern drawl, "it just felt like home."
A bustling town in the heart of Harford County, Bel Air is indeed small, less than 3 square miles of gently rolling hills and tree-lined streets. And during a leisurely stroll down Main Street on a sunny late summer day, that small-town ambience is still evident.
In the square in front of the Harford County Courthouse, an elegant Colonial edifice that is the centerpiece of the town, a hot dog vendor chats with a customer in the shade of a poplar tree. Along the busy avenue, people in business attire feed parking meters and jaywalk as they scurry to keep appointments.
Many of the buildings on Main Street house government offices, banks and law firms, but there are offbeat businesses as well -- a storefront art school where students can be seen working at their easels, a private detective agency, a dog grooming salon and a cluster of antique shops.
The architecture is a jumble of new and old, contemporary and traditional. Flower boxes filled with red and yellow mums line a block where a 19th-century house has been converted to a law office. An old brick church has found new life as a youth center. There's been an attempt at preserving some unity of style, as even new buildings of contemporary design display brick facades and Palladian windows.
At Boyd & Fulford Pharmacy, a thriving 102-year-old establishment with a distinctive black-and-white tile frontage, proprietor Mary Street, whose family has been in the area since 1649, is eager to share her insights. "Sure, there's still a small town feeling," she said, "people really care about each other here."
But Ms. Street, who is actively involved in the Bel Air Civic Association, expresses concern that politicians are "ripping the heart out of the town." She was outraged when the post office was moved outside the town limits, and helped lead the charge against moving the library by gathering petition signatures.
Traffic, services problems
There are other, more pressing problems, as the constant roar of traffic down the narrow one-way street suggests.
The greater Bel Air area is experiencing phenomenal growth and the town is struggling to cope with the traffic and service problems generated by the influx.
Russ Poole, chairman of the Board of Town Commissioners and the figurehead mayor, commented: "Commercial and residential development outside the town limits has exerted tremendous pressure on us. Traffic is terrible. Right now there is a task force of Bel Air, county and state highway agencies looking at the situation."
It is estimated that the number of linear miles of road in Bel Air has doubled over the past 15 to 20 years. Getting through town at rush hour is a challenge, and there's even been talk of a Bel Air beltway to allow traffic to bypass the town.
Elizabeth Carven, community development administrator with the town's Department of Planning and Zoning, estimates that, while town inhabitants number less than 10,000, the population of the greater Bel Air area has swollen to 55,000. But Ms. Carven makes the point that "all development is not bad development. We must have a commercial-industrial tax base."
Controversies over development dominate town meetings and growth control has become a focal point of coming local elections.
According to Jerry Curry, a real estate agent with Joan Ryder & Associates, there are four major enticements that draw people to the Bel Air area.
"The excellent reputation of the school system, the convenience of the central location near I-95, the small-town ambience and the lower cost of living in the area. People feel they get a good quality of life here and they get more for their housing dollar."
Types of available housing run the gamut from condos (about $75,000) to luxury townhouses ($90,000 to $130,000) to executive single-family homes (as high as $600,000).
When the Myerses moved from their small Georgia town, they were attracted to the older, established neighborhood of Glenwood, with its big trees, spacious yards and diversity of neighbors. An unexpected benefit has been the access to cultural attractions in the area. "We've only been here since spring," said Mrs. Myers, "and already we've taken trips to Washington, D.C., New York and the Amish country."
Other newcomers are frustrated city dwellers, like Rose Marie Cherry, who moved to Bel Air "to get away from the heat and congestion of the city." Ms. Cherry, who retired from a 33-year career as an administrator with Johns Hopkins University, sold her rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore and in May bought a new one-story condo.
Starter families are mainstay
Young families remain the source of real estate sales here. According to Ms. Curry, newcomers to the area also include "a large contingent of attorneys who work here since Bel Air is the county seat, also many physicians, and executives who work in Hunt Valley, and we see quite a few military folks who fell in love with the area when they were stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground and come back to retire."
Bel Air was founded in 1782, when Harford Countians voted to move the county seat from Harford Town to a plat of 42 lots along today's Main Street. Of the four houses in the original hamlet of Bel Air, the Van Bibber and the Hays houses remain.
As early as 1830, the Conowingo Stage Line ran coaches between Baltimore and Philadelphia and by mid-century five roads converged on the growing town, which was then composed of about 25 homes and six taverns. Much of Bel Air's history revolves around the Harford County Courthouse and Square, built in 1858 after fire destroyed the original courthouse.
Many farms in Harford County had their own canneries and, after the Civil War, a boom in the canning industry was the main catalyst for growth in Bel Air. When the railroad connected Bel Air with Baltimore and Pennsylvania in 1883, a second growth spurt occurred, and the town's boundaries were enlarged.
Since World War II, the Bel Air area has developed rapidly as the economic center of Harford County.
Along with development has come the demise of farming in the area, though a few farms remain on the outskirts of town. As you drive up Belair Road from the south, you're greeted by the sight of horses grazing on the hillside of Country Life Farm, the oldest BTC thoroughbred farm in Maryland.
Mike Pons, co-owner of the farm famous for producing such stellar thoroughbreds as Derby and Preakness winner Carry Back, relates how his grandfather started breeding thoroughbreds and located here in the 1930s when Harford Mall was the Bel Air Race Track.
Mr. Pons has watched with sadness as many farms, such as the highly visible Deaton property on Baltimore Pike, have been sold to developers. He expresses the feeling of many who lament the loss of that "welcome mat of green" in the center of town.
William N. McFaul, town administrator for the past 20 years, says: "We've gone from a sleepy little town to a vital community. I feel personally that Bel Air has the best of both worlds -- a thriving commercial center and tranquil residential community."
Population: 9,640 (1990 census)
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 45 minutes
Commuting time to Washington: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Public schools: Bel Air Elementary, Homestead/Wakefield Elementary, Southampton Middle, Bel Air Middle, Bel Air High
Shopping: Giant supermarket in Tollgate Marketplace, Klein's, Basics at Harford Mall, shopping along Baltimore Pike (Route 1)
Nearest Mall: Harford Mall, in Bel Air; White Marsh Mall, 10 miles south
Points of Interest: Liriodendron, Palladian mansion on the National Register of Historic Places; Harford County Courthouse; Hays House, 18th-century historical home; Tudor Hall, birthplace John Wilkes Booth
ZIP codes: 21014
Average price of single family home*: 142,671 (232 sales)
* Average price for homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies' multiple listing service over the past year.