For those thinking of moving to Sparks, one of the most treasured sights in the community happens to be long and green and just off Belfast Road.
It's not the rolling countryside in this northern Baltimore County neighborhood, but the distinctive green roof of Sparks Elementary School, considered one of the best academic public schools in the state.
Real estate agents will say that schools are a strong force in determining where a family wants to buy a home. And Sparks seems to be an excellent case in point.
"People do move here specifically because of the school," said Principal Thomas N. Ellis.
The reason for the success, said Ellis, is the high level of parental involvement and commitment to education: "Our kids come to school ready to learn."
Aside from being a place where children can get a first-rate education, Sparks offers rural privacy with an easy commute to Baltimore for its residents -- business executives, several Baltimore Orioles, television personalities and families who have lived there for four generations.
It's a strange composite of rural living and corporate business, according to George McCeney, president of the Greater Sparks-Glencoe Community Council. Traveling north along York Road, past Hunt Valley and just beyond Shawan Road, one passes corporate offices belonging to such companies as McCormick & Co., Fila Footwear USA Inc. and Becton Dickinson. "Once past there, it turns into a rural town," said McCeney.
Sparks offers a wide range of housing choices.
"You can buy a brand-new home for $500,000 or an older one that needs work for about $200,000," said Rick Ray, an agent with Long and Foster's Timonium office. Townhouses go for $140,00 to $170,000 and lots for $150,000, he said. Ray concurs with Ellis that the elementary school, as well as Hereford middle and high schools, are an important draw for new residents.
The community's esteem for its new elementary school, which opened last November, extends to the old one on Sparks Road that burned down two years ago. All that's left standing of the 91-year-old school is the triple-arched stone front, which many want saved and incorporated into a new community center. Baltimore County Public Schools, which owns the shell, is in negotiations to turn the structure over to the county's Recreation and Parks Department, which owns the land behind the school.
Jeanette Tansy, chief of capital planning and development for Recreation and Parks, said one important issue in keeping the building is its structural integrity. "We don't want to get something that turns out to be a big demolition project," said Tansy.
McCeney said the community will retain a structural engineer to examine the building. "There'll be a lot of unhappy campers if a wrecking ball comes around," he said. Built in 1906, it was the county's first agricultural high school until Hereford High was built in the 1950s.
Going east from the school, just down Sparks Road is another important part of Sparks, the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
The former right of way that runs partly along the Gunpowder River has been transformed into a hiking and biking trail that extends from Cockeysville north to York, Pa. Next to the trail in the former Sparks Bank Building is the Sparks Nature Center, which has interactive exhibits for children and weekly programs for Scouting groups and schools.
"On a nice weekend, hundreds of people are using the trail and stopping by," said Tricia Sater, director of the nature center.
Sparks was a small town that grew up along York Road and the Gunpowder River, said Ruth Mascari, a historian and the chairman of the Baltimore County Historical Trust.
Named for the Sparks railroad depot built in 1837 along the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad line, the town prospered, catering to travelers and commerce along what was then the York Turnpike.
Today, there are reminders of that history. The Loveton Mansion still stands, as does the Milton Inn, formerly the Milton Academy, from which a troubled young man named John Wilkes Booth was expelled.
Residents drive south to Cockeysville or north to Hereford to shop, because there's very little commercial activity along York Road in Sparks. An exception is the Sparks Bank. In an age of bank mergers, it's one of the few that has kept its hometown roots.
"We've still retained our community-bank image," said Brad Moore, the bank president. "We take deposits from the community, and we put it back in the way of donations and sponsorship of yearly events."
Because of its beautiful setting and fine schools, the pressure for development in Sparks has grown over the past 15 years.
"It's ironic that the reason for being here -- the rural lifestyle -- is disappearing," McCeney said. But he added that the county is committed to limiting development and preserving the things that make it special, such as the one-lane bridge on Sparks Road.
The bridge is what McCeney, a retired teacher who has lived in Sparks for 20 years, likes best about Sparks. "You have to stop and let the other car cross," he said. "It seems it's one of the few chances you get to see your neighbors nowadays. It's a reminder how fast our lives have gotten."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 40 minutes
Shopping: Hunt Valley Mall, Hereford Center
Public schools: Sparks Elementary School, Hereford Middle School, Hereford High School.
Zip code: 21152
Homes on market: 6
Average listing price: $267,556*
Average sales price: $255,411*
Average days on market: 161*
Sales price as percentage of listing price: 95.46%*
*Based on 18 sales in the past 12 months as recorded by the Metropolitan Regional Information System.