URBANA - Just as Frederick County had begun to constrain its furious growth, along come the first residents of the biggest planned community in its history: 1,200 acres of homes, stores, parks and traffic circles slowly rising from the dirt of what was once farmland and ravines off Interstate 270.
Like upper-middle-class pioneers, the residents have begun descending on the planned 3,500-home Villages of Urbana. The mammoth project - one of the state's largest - is fast becoming a new county symbol for the sort of rural development considered a boon or a blight, Smart Growth or sprawl.
When the property was zoned for residential use about 25 years ago, the future developers couldn't have known they would open for business at a time when the county - whose population has grown 33 percent since 1990 - is struggling to keep up with the services that homeowners require.
"Half of our schools are overcrowded, we have significant road congestion, we have strains on our water and sewer capacity, and our landfill has filled up much faster than we anticipated," said County Commissioner Jan Gardner. "Most people don't recognize that every time we build a house, it creates red ink."
Paying for itself
In the case of Urbana, the cost of bringing new water and sewer lines and roads to the development will be borne largely by the new homeowners. Under a state-authorized taxing authority, buyers of new, detached single-family homes will be assessed an average of about $1,250 a year over the next 30 years, while townhome owners will pay about $750.
In other words, the project is paying for itself, according to managers of the principal developer, Natelli Communities of Gaithersburg. The developers say the villages adhere to the governor's Smart Growth initiative by confining the units to one large area instead of a series of smaller developments spread all over the countryside.
But critics say the project's timing is more than unfortunate.
It comes, said horse farmer Lori Garnant, when many residents have made clear their frustration with "building done willy-nilly, putting subdivisions into rural areas where there is no water and sewer available."
Garnant, of Knoxville, said she's seen the Urbana project only from a distance and her first reaction was: "Oh my God, its unbelievable, isn't it? Like a little city. It's just one example of how fast things are growing here."
As a result of developments in the county, particularly along the I-270 corridor to Washington, the commissioners are considering tripling the county's one-time, $4,200 "impact fee" on new-home buyers to make certain that school capacity doesn't again become overwhelmed by growth.
The fee issue, like so many others involving growth, is fracturing the five-member commission. A faction that includes Commissioner Ilona Hogan believes the slow-growth trend threatens to freeze the county's progress.
Nearly tripling the fee would stick new-home buyers with an "astronomical" bill, Hogan said. "We have gone beyond what Smart Growth was billed as, and it translates into 'No Growth,'" she said.
Pressure from growth
Frederick's population spurt is evident at Urbana High School, where five portable classrooms are in use because there's not enough space in the building.
"You are seeing a small community under tremendous growth pressure," said Don Hindman, an assistant principal. "The hallways are crowded, the cafeteria is crowded, but the classrooms still are very productive."
Anthony Natelli, the development firm's chairman, said the economic climate may shift yet again, and growth will be back in vogue.
"There's no way that kind of thing can be foreseen and planned for," Natelli said. "I think you find that in times of prosperity, when economic conditions are excellent, there are certain segments of the population who say, 'Hey, why do we need growth?' This project will live through a number of economic cycles, irrespective of the situation of the moment."
While not opposing the new villages, Gardner and other county officials believe the slow-growth climate doesn't favor another Villages of Urbana soon. "I think this will be the last one for a long time," Hogan said.
The project's scale is striking. From a once-sleepy community will sprout a town center surrounded by as many as 18 distinct "villages" of up to 200 homes each. Some of the villages will look as classically suburban as television's old "Brady Bunch" neighborhood, while the town center will mimic an old-fashioned, pedestrian-friendly small town, according to the current "neotraditional" trend among developers.
While the project is dwarfed by others such as Columbia and Montgomery Village, it is larger than others in neighboring Montgomery County, such as Lakelands and Kentlands.
The project will take 10 to 20 years to complete. About 150 families are expected to be moved in by the middle of next summer, and the pace is expected to accelerate after that.
To ease access, the developer is putting in new roads - the ribbon will be cut today on a relocated Route 80 - and has created an office park to try to lure a major corporation to Urbana.
A visitor to the site was recently greeted with the sounds of crickets, hammering and the grinding of heavy machinery.
In stark contrast to the skeletons of the new homes nearby, two historic houses on the site were surrounded by metal fences topped with razor wire. The brick structures, including one dating to the 18th century, are being restored by the developer and will be used for offices or recreation.
Nearby were a half-dozen early birds who had already descended on their new homes a few months ago, braving the construction noise and encountering signs such as one reading, "Future Site of Planned Neighborhood Shopping Center."
At least one of the new arrivals has his eye on a real-estate market driven in part by the high-technology businesses that have located near Urbana, off I-270.
"We look at it as a great investment because we believe Frederick County will be the next Montgomery County," said lawyer Andrew DiPasquale who, with his wife, was among the first to arrive. "We're not going to be here forever. I would say maybe 10 years."
In the meantime, DiPasquale said, he's going to enjoy the amenities that will one day include swimming pools, hiking and biking trails and tennis courts.
The cost of the townhouses will start at about $150,000, while single-family homes will begin above $200,000 and range up to $300,000 or more.
A four-bedroom luxury model viewed recently had cathedral ceilings, a gas fireplace, intercom system and whirlpool tub, and cost in the upper $400,000 range.
Not all area residents are firmly aligned for or against the development.
Charlie Seymour, the owner of the aptly named Turning Point Inn, knows he'll be losing something valuable that will never be recovered. "I used to look out the window at cows and cornfields, and now there are clusters of homes and earth movers and bulldozers," Seymour said.
But Seymour is also a businessman, and he knows that opportunity is about to knock.
In addition to running his country inn and restaurant, Seymour is planning to add a gourmet grocery and wine store. And he plans to start selling Christmas trees as soon as there are enough new residents to buy them.