In the past 50 years, only about two dozen homes have been built in the Carroll County town of Union Bridge, pop. 932.
That all could change in a big way.
Landowners are proposing a development that could more than double the size of the town -- and turn it into a posterfor the latest in surburan community developemnt. Town officials have only approved concept plans for the project.
In a handful of places across the country, developers from the "New Urbanism" school are turning away from cul-de-sacs and strip shopping centers. Instead, these developers champion designs reminiscent of small towns: narrow, tree-lined streets that intersect on a grid, with sidewalks and parallel parking -- elements that create streetscapes resembling older city neighborhoods.
In Union Bridge, new urbanism gets one of its most interesting tests: Can something so new blend in with a 123-year-old community, or will any development that doubles the size of a town, no matter how well-intentioned, overwhelm it?
The old railroad town, tucked along the western Carroll County border near Frederick County, is fading, with only a few businesses left on Main Street. But Union Bridge is filled with impressive Victorian and Greek Revival homes, and its residents have a sense of roots that many suburban communities lack.
"Union Bridge is a lovely, lovely Maryland town," said David S. Thaler, a Baltimore engineer and town planner who is designing the Union Bridge development, called Locust Grove. "It's frozen in time. Many Central Maryland towns have been spoiled by zoning and road regulations, which generate sprawl and suburban developments.
"We're not going to spoil this town," he added. "We're going to replicate it at Locust Grove. People want a community, a hometown and that's what we're going to create."
Like many longtime residents, Tom Winebrener welcomes the plans for 317 homes on a large tract on the town's eastern border. As Mr. Winebrener and others see it, Locust Grove, the first development in Union Bridge since World War II, will breathe new life into the town.
"The town needs the development to stay alive," said Mr. Winebrener, a former town councilman who just retired after 20 years on the planning commission. "We need the business. There's no traffic along Main Street."
Mayor Perry Jones agrees that the town's Main Street needs an economic boost and the town needs additional tax revenue to provide such services as its own police officer.
"I think most of the town residents would like to see this happen," Mr. Jones said. "It will bring new life in the town and help our Main Street. I'm a lifelong resident and nothing has changed here. We've probably lost more businesses over the years than what we've gained. We need this."
Union Bridge, Mr. Thaler believes, has a unique opportunity to create a development that accommodates people rather than cars. Like Andres Duany, the famed architect who has designed back-to-the-future developments at Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Montgomery County, Mr. Thaler believes towns laid out in grids are more hospitable to people than the cul-de-sac layouts so typical of suburbia.
Proposed retail buildings would sit on the street rather than be set back in a sea of parking spaces. In Mr. Thaler's plan, retail parking would be located behind the buildings.
The homes in Locust Grove -- 265 single-family homes and 52 townhouses -- will mirror the architecture found in Union Bridge. Mr. Thaler describes it as "Western Maryland vernacular" architecture, a mix of Gothic, Victorian and Greek Revival. The homes typically have raised first floors -- about 30 inches off the ground -- front porches (in which folks sit at eye level with pedestrians) and steep pitched roofs.
Locust Grove is the culmination of a 25-year-effort to develop the Phillips property, a 120-acre tract that borders Route 75, the main road into Union Bridge. Town residents narrowly approved annexation of the property three years ago. The owner, G. Jackson Phillips, a Towson dentist, is looking for a builder.
But even as plans for Locust Grove move forward, debate over the merits of a massive development continues. Many neighboring county residents are raising concerns about traffic along narrow county roads and the development's impact on schools, emergency services and water.
"The road we live on is very narrow and there's a lot of traffic on it now," said Ann Southers, a resident of Bark Hill Road, which borders the subdivision tract. "There are a lot of things that need to be looked at. This is going to impact us so we feel we should be included."
But Dawn Steinberg of Finksburg, who opened the town's newest business, the Union Bridge Family Restaurant, supports the Locust Grove development.
"I think some people are afraid we're going to become another Hampstead or Manchester," she said. "But I don't think this development will affect Union Bridge as much. Development can only help the town, especially the businesses. There's not a lot of business here now to support."