In the late 1980s, when the Columbia village of River Hill was nothing more than a set of site plans, Bruce Riegel knew it was for him.
A high school biology teacher, Mr. Riegel already had a home nearby. But he was captivated by the wildlife, woods and rolling hills on Columbia's western edge, where the Howard County town's developer, the Rouse Co., was preparing to launch a new village that would brush up against rural Clarksville.
"I had read bits and pieces about it in the newspaper," recalled Mr. Riegel. So he began calling builders who were being considered by Rouse.
The builders would tell him, not surprisingly, that they hadn't even been definitely picked for the village. "That's OK," Mr. Riegel would tell them, "Put our names down."
His persistence paid off. Mr. Riegel's family was one of the first households in River Hill, Columbia's final village.
Residents present at the creation of River Hill are also watching the completion of Columbia, the enclave between Baltimore and Washington that has evolved into home for more than 80,000 exurbanites, village by village, cul-de-sac by cul-de-sac, since construction began 30 years ago.
Mr. Riegel and many others in the 4-year-old River Hill see themselves as the last pioneers in the experiment that has been Columbia, with its 21 square miles of neighborhoods clustered into nine rigorously planned villages and Town Center.
"There's some excitement going on because it's the last village," said Patrick Smith, a real estate agent for Long & Foster. "People are excited to be in on it."
"It's something new, something different. It's going the farthest away from the Town Center, a little bit separated from the rest of Columbia," said Mr. Smith. "It's really going to have a different feel to it."
"It's Columbia, but it's not Columbia," said Lisa Edleman, a two-year River Hill resident who sells real estate for American Properties Inc.
Susan Gordon remembers what it was like in March 1992, when she moved into Pheasant Ridge, one of River Hill's two neighborhoods, from the Columbia village of Kings Contrivance.
She and her husband, Larry, were driving around one day, when they came upon Trotter Road, an old, winding country route stretching from Route 108 to Route 32, dotted with Clarksville homes, many that had been there for years. When they came upon the first Pheasant Ridge section -- tucked next to the 900-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area that separates River Hill from the rest of Columbia -- she was sold. "I said, 'I love it.' "
The 630-acre Pheasant Ridge had been carved out of an old tree nursery and farmland, and 158 lots in the first phase were awaiting buyers. "There was nothing here," said Ms. Gordon. "It looked like 'Little House on the Prairie.' It was pretty lonely."
But no more. The first phases of Pheasant Ridge and the other neighborhood, Pointers Run, are finished. Some 600 families call River Hill home, now. According to Rouse, 186 new homes were sold in Pointers Run last year.
Yards in the completed sections are manicured; parents push strollers up and down quiet cul-de-sacs with names like Enchanted Solitude Place and Mellow Wine Way, monikers lifted from the poems of Walt Whitman and James Whitcomb Riley.
"As homes get in and lawns get established, it's a nice feeling," said Sunny McGuinn, River Hill's village manager and a longtime Columbia resident. "It becomes more of a neighborhood instead of a development."
River Hill will eventually house 2,200 to 2,300 families, with around 80 percent of the homes single-family detached. Most of the multifamily housing will be built next to the planned village center near the intersection of Routes 108 and 32. It will be the largest of Columbia's villages, at 1,745 acres, and more than half of River Hill's acreage will be open space. "You're in the country, observes Ms. McGuinn.
The newest sections of Pointers Run are now swarming with carpenters, electricians, plumbers and excavators. Some of the region's largest builders are busily laying foundations and framing new homes in the neighborhood, and prices there range from under $200,000 to more than $500,000.
According to the Legg Mason Realty Group, Ryland Homes, the area's largest builder, is putting up homes in the $248,000 to $284,000 range. Mark Building Corp. positioned its homes in the most affordable segment, ranging from $155,000 to $210,000. The upper end has been occupied by Allan Homes ($337,900 to $426,900) and Williamsburg Builders ($271,900 to $545,000).
Other builders, according to Legg Mason, include Patriot Homes ($184,900 to $239,900), Goodier Builders ($199,100 to $343,700), Nantucket Island Homes ($215,900 to $290,900), Nu-Homes Inc. ($232,100 to $327,900), Hallmark Builders ($259,900 to $329,900), Douglas Homes ($270,900 to $333,900) and Columbia Builders ($278,990 to $329,990).
As the village approaches critical mass, some of the essentials are taking shape.
The village center -- to be anchored by a Giant supermarket -- is in the planning stages. After the projected opening date of September 1997, residents won't have to pick up groceries one village over, in Hickory Ridge.
The local high school -- temporarily occupied by students from Wilde Lake while their new school is being built -- will be taken over next fall by River Hill students now at nearby Atholton High.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes the village's transition like changes to its major access routes. Guilford Road -- the old, winding two-lane Route 32 -- has been a daily traffic headache between Routes 108 on the west and 29 to the east, carrying 22,000 vehicles per day. But soon, perhaps as early as March, the new, wider 4.5-mile stretch of Route 32 is scheduled to open, according to Gene Straub, acting district engineer for the State Highway Administration. The harsh winter has delayed painting the pavement. "We've been trying for months to get the thing open," he said.
The new road bisects Pointers Run, but Great Star Drive will link the two sections, as well as being the site of River Hill's Route 32 interchange. Many of the newcomers to River Hill are moving from other villages, according to Kevin Wilson, vice chairman of the village board.
But other homebuyers are streaming in from outside Columbia, attracted by the county's reputation for excellent schools. In the most recent state achievement tests, Howard County students had highest scores in Maryland. That has helped fill the new neighborhoods of River Hill with children, and kept planners busy trying to locate tot lots. "There are a lot of families who are moving in with three and four kids," Mr. Wilson said.
"It's hard to find a baby-sitter," said Brenda Scott, who moved from the village of Oakland Mills.
Population: 2,000 *
Commuting time to Baltimore: 30 minutes
Commuting time to Washington: 45 minutes
Public schools: Pointers Run Elementary School, Clarksville Elementary School, Clarksville Middle School, River Hill High School (fall 1996)
Points of Interest: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, Savage Mill, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.
Shopping: Hickory Ridge Village Center
Nearest mall: The Mall in Columbia
Zip Code: 21029 (Clarksville), 21044 (Columbia)
Average price for single-family home: $255,000* (Based on 186 sales in 1995)
' * Source: The Rouse Co.