Town doesn't lose character with growth Bel Air has changed, but residents still value its history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Traffic flows steadily through the heart of Bel Air and intense commercial and residential development surround it.

But the tree-lined town of about 10,000 still has quiet neighborhoods, public gardens, a courthouse square and a charming Main Street, thanks to residents of Harford's county seat who have worked diligently to preserve its small-town flavor.

"Bel Air will always be able to call itself a small town," said Peter Schlehr, a volunteer member of the town planning commission and a town resident for 25 years. "It just doesn't look as small as it used to be. But as much as we can we try to preserve its character. We want it to be the best town we can possibly have."

Bel Air's residential neighborhoods are quiet and conveniently close to the shops and restaurants of Main Street. Minutes away are the courthouse, hardware stores, florists, dry cleaners, athletic club, hair salons, banks, schools, churches and parks.

Town residents pay a local tax for services such as public water, sewer, trash pickup, leaf pickup and snow removal. The town also provides inexpensive bus service.

Still, "home grown" Bel Air residents like to reminiscence about the town's quieter days before the Harford Mall, strip shopping centers and many other businesses, restaurants and people moved in.

Their memories are alive with stories of the old racetrack, Friday nights on Main Street, the drive-in fast-food joint, root bear floats, 15-cent hamburgers, snowballs, the 5- and 10-cent store and soda fountain -- all now gone.

" 'Happy Days' was Bel Air in the Fifties," says Todd Holden, a photojournalist and writing teacher who has a photography studio off Main Street and has lived on a farm bordering the town for most of his 58 years. "You couldn't have picked a greater place to grow up than Bel Air. But it's also a joy now to be able to go to bookstores that we never before had here."

Old-time Bel Air residents can still stop by the Bel Air Bakery, a family "all scratch bakery" business that has been in town since 1955. It has a coffee counter where local workers and residents can stop by to drink and talk.

"I love Bel Air," said Jim Hamilton Sr., president of the bakery, which makes more than 30 kinds of tea cookies and specializes in cakes, bite-size eclairs, Danish and cream puffs. "It's a wonderful place. It's the last of the small towns."

While those who live here may no longer know everybody they pass on Main Street, residents volunteer to help with historic preservation of buildings, public gardening, holiday decorating, parades and even the construction of an elaborate, creative playground.

"We've been blessed with people who traditionally have helped the town," said Carol Deibel, director of planning and community development. "You cannot believe the volunteer effort. These people are so committed to their community. People care about their neighborhoods here."

Two or three hundred people, many of them town residents, help to maintain the appearance of the town, Deibel said.

Bel Air is the government and commercial center for Harford County. State, county and town administrative offices are downtown, along with the circuit and district courts.

The town is at the center of the county's development envelope, where the majority of development and services are directed. Commercial development is concentrated around the intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 24 in Bel Air.

Blended homes

About 90,000 people live in the bustling eight or so square miles of the Greater Bel Air area, but the town itself covers just 2.9 square miles. The earliest subdivision in town was a group of five houses built in the Dallam's Additions area before the turn of the century, Deibel said. Now the area in and around the town has many developments.

"When you trace the development over a 100-year period, it's amazing that the houses have all just kind of blended together," she said.

Most of the farmland that once surrounded the town is gone, but open space has been preserved in neighborhood parks, which include a nature preserve, hiking trails, gardens and an equestrian center.

"Bel Air is still a quaint little town with a lot of development but it's not like a major city," said Joan Ryder, president and broker of Century 21 Joan Ryder in Bel Air.

Throughout the town and Greater Bel Air area, she said, a diversity of housing choices and prices in a wide selection of neighborhoods and developments creates a market that appeals to a broad cross section of buyers.

Condominiums are available at $50,000 to $80,000 in Hickory Hills and Moores Mill. Duplexes on Courtland Place -- such as the kind that newlyweds Stefan and Sandy Buitron own -- start at $70,000.

"It's a really nice, quiet neighborhood," Stefan Buitron said. "And it's really close to everything. I don't want to have to drive any more than 20 minutes on the weekends."

'A really nice place'

Townhouses start in the mid-$80,000s and single-family homes at about $140,000 in Majors Choice, where 22-year-old Sheldon Hall, the manager of Georgetown North restaurant on Main Street, is buying a home with his fiancee, Diane Harnek.

"It's such a great neighborhood," Hall said. "I know a lot of people here and it's a really nice place to be."

Renovated ranchers, split-levels, Colonials and old-fashioned Victorian homes are available at scattered locations in town, starting at about $99,000. And in the Greater Bel Air developments of Todd Lakes and Glenangus, properties have been listed for more than $1 million.

The growth in Bel Air continues with a new hospital scheduled for construction and a recently expanded library. A planned hiking-biking trail will run three miles through town along the original route of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad -- the old "Ma & Pa."

And at the Trails at Glen Eagles -- a Bel Air development off Rock Spring Avenue and Hall Street under construction -- semicustom and custom single-family homes are being built at prices that start at $176,400.

A few months ago, Clinton and Deborah Ramsundar moved from a townhouse in Baltimore into a 2,500-square-foot, two-story home in the new development.

"It's country-looking," said Deborah Ramsundar.

"It's close enough to the city to be convenient yet you still have your privacy. Bel Air is a quaint little, laid-back town."

Bel Air

Population: 9,664

Public schools: Bel Air Elementary School, Bel Air Middle School, Bel Air High School, Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 45 minutes

ZIP codes: 21014, 21015

Points of interest: Heavenly Waters Park, Bel Air Bakery

Shopping: Harford Mall, Tollgate Mass, Bel Air Plaza, shops along Main Street.

Average price of a single-family home in the Bel Air area: $151,234. *

* Based on 172 sales in the past six months, reported to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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