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The other Laurel (in Howard County)


Penny Harshaw grew up in Laurel, met her husband there and spent the early years of their marriage there.

When the couple decided to move seven years ago, they chose Laurel again. But this time there was a major difference in the location.

They left Prince George's County, where most of Laurel is located, and moved across the Patuxent River into Howard County, to an area known as North Laurel.

"The schools are better in Howard County," Mrs. Harshaw said. Two of the Harshaw girls, Mackenzie, 6, and Emily, 10, attend Forest Ridge Elementary School, and the eldest daughter, Allyson, 12, goes to Murray Hill Middle School.

"I like everything about the schools," Mrs. Harshaw said. "The teachers are good. A lot of money is put toward the schools, and the kids get a good quality education."

Also, the girls are involved in several activities, from soccer and softball to Girl Scouts.

"We really like the smallness of the community," Mrs. Harshaw said. "We know all the people around, and we feel safe having the kids go out. They're very happy. They wouldn't trade their schools or friends for anything."

North Laurel is also a convenient neighborhood for husband Bryan, who works in nearby Beltsville.

Midway between Baltimore and Washington and with easy access to major highways, North Laurel seems to be the perfect place for couples who commute.

"For many years convenience - to I-95, Route 29 and the MARC train line - was the major reason people moved here," said Patty Smallwood, associate broker for Century 21 H. T. Brown and a lifetime North Laurel resident. "Now it's really the Howard County appeal. It is very popular now."

North Laurel has almost 8,900 households spread across a large area bordered by the Patuxent River on the south, Route 29 on the west, the Middle Patuxent River on the north and Route 1 on the east. Interstate 95 runs through the area.

"It's a good area for all price ranges," Smallwood said. Condominiums sell for $60,000 to $115,000. Townhouses sell for $95,000 to $175,000 and single family homes go for $135,000 to more than $500,000.

In some subdivisions, homes move very quickly. A townhouse in Bowling Brook was listed for just two days when two contracts were presented to the owners, one at $1,000 higher than the asking price. Single-family homes in Cherry Tree Farm are rarely on the market longer than 10 days.

Besides the schools, what is that Howard County appeal?

"We're still a little bit country in our settings." Smallwood explained. "They're not as congested as other areas."

"There's no better location in the state of Maryland than North Laurel," said Donna Thewes, a 12-year resident of the area. Mrs. Thewes and her husband, Michael, moved there from Texas. He was in the Army at the time and the area afforded easy access to Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Meade.

Mr. Thewes said the couple targeted North Laurel as a place to live and he tried to get stationed in the area. Both are natives of Bethesda. "This area was what Bethesda had been years ago: strong schools, strong neighborhoods," he said.

Mrs. Thewes works to keep the neighborhood strong. As treasurer of the North Laurel Civic Association, she deals with the county government on such issues as adequate lighting, drainage, development and zoning.

Recently the group sponsored a "Night Out Against Crime."

"Every August we host a community picnic with police officers in attendance," Mrs. Thewes said. "We try to build community." She added that crime is not a major problem, but the group wants to maintain a proactive stance.

This fall the association will sponsor a debate among the four candidates running for the Howard County Board of Education.

Mrs. Thewes said development is a major issue now, with two major projects planned at the northern edge of the area. The group is not opposed to development, yet she says, "there are too many townhouses" and not enough single-family homes.

"People don't want to leave North Laurel, but they can't find what they want. What's needed is four- to five-bedroom homes on large lots. We'd like to balance the community."

Smallwood agreed that people prefer to move within North Laurel. "People don't want to leave the school district or the convenience they've found," she said, adding that many of the buyers in the new section of Cherry Tree Farm moved from the old section.

There is a bit of a rivalry between the Howard County "Laurelites" and the Prince George's "Laurelites," as Smallwood calls them, and the areas have their own identities. "We call our area Howard County Laurel as though it's one word," she admitted.

"We have one claim to fame in Howard County Laurel," she boasted. "The P.G. Laurelites like to brag about having historical Montpelier Mansion in southern Laurel, but it actually got its name from Howard County.

"When Lord Snowden took a bride from Howard County Laurel, she renamed his estate after her father's - Montpelier, which was located near the current intersection of Route 29 and Johns Hopkins Road. So the name is not original to P.G. County."

Regardless of the history, people say they're happy in North Laurel.

"It's a very small-town feel here," Mrs. Thewes said. "Many people would prefer not to ever leave."

North Laurel

ZIP code: 20723

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 30 minutes

Public schools: Forest Ridge, Gorman Crossing, Hammond and Laurel Woods elementary, Hammond and Murray Hill middle, Atholton and Hammond high.

Shopping: U.S. 1 corridor, Cherry Tree Center, Laurel, Columbia.

Homes currently on market: 95.

Average listing price: $162,144*

Average sales price: $160,034*

Days on market: 173*

Sale price as percentage of listing price: 98.7%

* Based on 183 sales in the past 6 months compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

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