Houses taking root on former farmland; Residents of town in west Howard fear development's impact


Dorothy Phelps has witnessed the evolution of horse buggy into Model-T Ford, the demolition of a two-room schoolhouse and the inexorable transformation of farm village into suburb -- all from a window overlooking a crossroads in Dayton, nestled in southwestern Howard County.

"It is awful sad to see these farms go," said Phelps, 90, who has lived in her home at Ten Oaks and Green Bridge roads for 67 years.

During Phelps' decades there, the population of Dayton has grown gradually from a handful of people to about 1,300.

But during the next 15 years, county officials predict, a building surge will add 1,000 people, and residents fear that will forever alter the fabric of this former farm community.

"It's hard to explain," said Clyde Brown, 90, who has farmed here since he was a youngster. "It was quite different, people were different. We were all of the neighborhood, and we all knew one another. Now we get so many strangers in, and most of them don't know how to live in the country."

About 120 homes are in various stages of planning in Dayton, bordered by Route 32, Triadelphia Road and the Patuxent River.

The biggest proposal is for a 95-home subdivision on 237 acres sandwiched between Howard and Triadelphia Mill roads.

By 2015, county planners say, 420 more homes will be added.

Development would sweep through Dayton the way it has turned farm fields into suburbs across Maryland, with commuters racing to work in BMWs and parents carting children to baseball games in Volvos.

Those suburbanites have replaced farmers, who once hauled goods over unpaved roads, and popular local figures such as Lenny Hobbs, who pumped gas and offered small talk at his crossroads filling station. Hobbs died in April.

In addition to losing its hometown feel, residents say, Dayton will be harmed by too many cars on inadequate roods, children flooding suburban schools and environmental damage.

Community stance

"The environment, roads, schools and services -- that's what this is about," said Peter Esseff, president of the Dayton Community Association. "We're not against development. We're just against the size of development."

The association has waged war against the 95-home Big Branch Overlook subdivision and its developer, Charles A. Sharp.

The group has filed two lawsuits -- one against the county planning board and the other against Sharp, Howard County and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The residents are trying to reduce Sharp's development by 35 homes.

Association officials urged state delegates last year to introduce legislation that would have limited building in the watershed to one home per 5 acres.

Zoning in western Howard calls for cluster developments in most cases, with density set at one home per 4.25 acres. The controversial bill died last spring in committee, after local governments voiced strong opposition.

Sharp is building houses on 1-acre lots and leaving 135 acres as open space, limiting road construction and concrete. Standing by his battered pickup truck on a recent cold morning, a large rig drilling a water well rumbling in the background, Sharp pointed to neighboring areas on a zoning map. All have houses.

"This area is already developed," Sharp said. "This whole site is surrounded by residential development. The site I'm preserving in [western Howard] is far more suited for farmland preservation."

Under county law, Sharp received approval to cluster development on the Dayton tract by permanently preserving 166 acres he owns and farms in Mount Airy.

A gust of wind whipped through Sharp's Santa Claus-like beard as he discussed his critics.

He insists that 90 percent of residents support his plans for keeping open space while cluster-building, even as they fight development in general. "Everybody is against development, even me," said Sharp, who grows wheat and barley on 1,000 acres he owns throughout Howard County.

About 28 percent of Dayton will never be developed, having been preserved as farmland under the county's agriculture preservation program. Some residents remember when farmland stretched everywhere, with only a few houses dotting the countryside. It was a close-knit community.

Outsiders arrive

Genevieve Gibson, a resident for 35 years, was cast as an outsider when she arrived.

"It was very interesting then," Gibson said. "You had to be very careful you were nice, because you could be talking to somebody's 32nd cousin and they didn't like outsiders coming in."

Many others have moved here since Gibson. Some, like Esseff, purchased new homes with sprawling lawns.

Others selected existing houses. Two years ago, Katy Peters-Rodbell, a veteran of the Waverly Woods development fight in Ellicott City, moved with her family to a large, gray house set back from Dayton Meadows Court -- to avoid development.

"We moved into one already built so we wouldn't be contributing to the problem," she said. "Development is bound to happen. I just don't want this to become suburban sprawl."

Residents are also concerned about growth's impact on roads.

They say Dayton's curvy, narrow roads will not support more cars. New roads might not help much, residents say, because zoning regulations require developers to build streets the same size as those in Dayton now -- to limit speeds and concrete.

Residents also worry that students will flood county schools. But a schools spokeswoman says the system is taking steps to anticipate growth across southwestern Howard by building a high school and middle school, and by expanding existing schools.

Those complaints aside, Dayton residents seem more concerned about their town's changing character.

Barbara Haffner spoke about raising two sons and a daughter here as she waited to buy stamps at the one-room Dayton Post Office. "I think the people here have a lot of morals," she said. "I don't think there's another place in Maryland like it."

Postmaster Dolores Moran works behind the counter, sorting mail for several dozen P.O. boxes, selling stamps and offering a place for friends to gossip and chat. "I never get lonely here," she said. "Somebody is always popping in."

Down the road lives Phelps, a short woman with a broad smile. Her husband died of cancer in 1966. Their house was a former wheel-making shop that had no indoor plumbing until the 1950s.

From her rocking chair by the window, where she sews and makes crafts, Phelps eyes the changing world. "The older people, they're all gone," Phelps said. "I don't think [development] is going to run me out. I've just gotten used to it."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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