Can't get there from here; Acces: Drivers have only one way to get to Gales Lane in Howard County. They must enter from busy U.S. 29.

There may be no other community quite like it in Columbia: three houses on an isolated remnant of road called Gales Lane, accessible only by busy, northbound U.S. 29.

The unplanned enclave is an island in the midst of the area's biggest planned town, beyond the reach of Columbia rules that control everything from signs to paint colors.

Such freedom comes at a price: Even a simple trip to the convenience store means getting directly on and off the high-speed highway. And then there is the problem - worse when trees are winter bare - of the roar of more than 63,000 vehicles speeding by daily.

Yet those who live there and others who want to move there say their hillside community is a peaceful refuge: a wooded cocoon complete with a stream and grazing deer.

"It's extremely peaceful. In summertime, it's wonderful," said Anne Marie Ritz, one of the residents.

Other residents agree, saying they like the convenience of living amid, but not part of, Columbia.

"We feel we have a lot more freedom. It's the best of both worlds," says Robert Wilmoth, a construction foreman who, with his wife, Sarah, two daughters and their dogs, left Prince George's County and moved into the house closest to the highway seven years ago.

They bought the 1954 house from county planning director Joseph W. Rutter Jr.'s elderly parents. Rutter remembers living there when The Mall in Columbia property was a farm and the area was so rural that cars would sometimes run out of gas.

"There were no gas stations from Burtonsville [Montgomery County] to Route 40," he said, "and the closest home was a half-mile away."

The country lane was named after a local farmer, Timothy Gale. Once it crossed a small stream, into what is now Columbia's Oakland Mills village. But more than 20 years ago - nobody seems to remember exactly when - the end of the lane disappeared, perhaps washed out by a flood. That left three homes with access only to U.S. 29.

Despite that, Michael Bakalyar and his wife, Marsha French, hope to buy there - two of the houses are for sale - and move from their Wilde Lake home with their two teen-agers.

"I'm going to paint the trim purple," said French, grinning in a half-joking reference to Columbia's well-known covenants requiring earth-tone colors. "Having people control your life doesn't suit us," Bakalyar, a self-employed floor specialist, agreed.

Gales Lane residents also don't have to pay the special property assessment - 73 cents per $100 of assessed value - collected by the Columbia Association, another result of having been bypassed by James W. Rouse when he laid out his dream town more than 30 years ago.

The Wilmoths live near the cement footbridge that crosses the highway, connecting the two halves of the 87,000-person city that has grown up around their homes. They don't mind being surrounded by suburbia and the commuter-choked highway.

"We can be over to the [Columbia] lakefront walking in three minutes," he said. "We're in the center of Columbia, but we're not part of it."

And although their only access is through the speeding, increasingly heavy U.S. 29 traffic, Robert Wilmoth says he prefers that to reconnecting Gales Lane to Columbia as it once existed.

"I like this better," he said. "We can be in and out quicker. My wife and I have no problem with the situation now." Which is fortunate, because the stream would make building a new section of Gales Lane very expensive, Rutter says, and neither state nor county officials plan to do that.

Leaving the lane can be intimidating at first, Wilmoth acknowledges. To exit, a driver has to enter the highway shoulder and quickly accelerate to highway speeds, then merge with speeding commuters. And whether the destination is south or north, a driver must enter and leave Gales Lane northbound on the divided highway.

"It gets easier real quick," said Bakalyar, who has been practicing.

The modest ranchers aren't cheap. The asking price for the one Bakalyar and French want is $209,000, including an acre of ground, says real estate agent Blaine Milner. The other house, on 5.5 acres, is priced at $299,000.

Muriel Crabbs, a Hanover, Pa., attorney and Anne Marie Ritz's sister, says their mother lived in the house now occupied by Anne Marie from 1981 until her death in the spring. "She liked it up there," she said, despite her 14 children's worries about their elderly mother coping with the isolation and highway traffic.

"I love it there. It's lovely - a little piece of nature. It's really a special kind of place," Crabbs said. The house has a fireplace in the living room and the master bedroom, plus flagstone around the outside that her stepfather, John Hunt, brought from northern Baltimore County and installed himself.

That quality - older construction and the solid materials used in all three homes - is another attraction, Bakalyar says.

"It's 50 years old. It's really a house. It's not a tract house."

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