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Small towns seeking roads less traveled

When Les Unglesbee moved to the Montgomery County town of Brookeville in 1951, he loved to, as he puts it, "sit out on my front porch, prop up my feet and enjoy myself." Now, with 9,000 vehicles a day rumbling within 25 feet of his house, Unglesbee, 76, stays inside.

In Hampstead, Charles Walter, who has lived in the Carroll County town since 1939, says he has nearly been run over by speeding tractor-trailers while trying to cross Main Street to get his mail.

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"You can almost tell the time by the traffic," Walter said, referring to the town's morning and evening rush hours.

Brookeville has about 135 residents, and its centerpiece is an early 19th-century stone building that was once a private academy; it was restored and is now used as a community center. The town brags of being the United States' "capital for a day."

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Hampstead, which was born as an 18th-century stagecoach stop, is a town of 5,600, with Victorian houses and small businesses hugging its Main Street.

But whatever the differences in their backgrounds and architecture, the two towns share at least a few important traits. They are in growing suburban counties where traffic is building, and both straddle a state highway jammed with cars that are just passing through. Both have been waiting decades for planned highway bypass projects - roadwork designed to reroute much of the traffic and restore tranquillity to the center of town.

And both are still waiting for the first inch of asphalt to be laid.

State officials say they sympathize with the towns and others like them across Maryland. "The aspirations of these communities are very, very important to us," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "We think it is important to preserve these communities and provide relief from highway congestion."

But with money tight, highway officials make no promises that bypasses are going to be cut anytime soon - a familiar refrain to residents and municipal officials.

"The bypass is like Bigfoot," said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker. "Everybody talks about it, but no one's seen it."

Brookeville

Fifteen miles north of the Capital Beltway, trees begin to thicken around Route 97, the strip malls disappear, and the road narrows from four lanes to two.

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In Brookeville, just past the old post office, the road stops at Market and High streets. Problem is, some drivers don't stop. They run into Sidney Rotter's yard and, sometimes, into his house.

In the past 17 years, three cars have careered through his front yard. In the worst of the incidents, a stolen Dodge Caravan being chased by police drove through the front door and landed, with techno music blaring, in the foyer, recalled Poppy Rotter Kendall, Rotter's daughter. Recently, a landscaping truck crashed through the brick wall, constructed in 1798, that surrounds the Rotters' Federal-style home.

As Route 97 continues to grow as a commuting route, the dogleg in the road outside the Rotters' home seems to be more of a problem. Kendall said a bypass that would reduce traffic volume in town would make her elderly father's home safer.

Les and Jo Unglesbee understand the problem. They are used to having the cast-iron period lamp in their front yard knocked down.

"We need it bad," Les Unglesbee said of the bypass. "We are way overdue."

Brookeville has been waiting 40 years for a bypass, which residents say is their only hope to avoid being overrun by vehicles traversing Georgia Avenue, as Route 97 is known in the Washington area, on the way south to the district or north to Howard County and Interstate 70. Residents say that unless a $19 million, 1 1/2 -mile bypass is cut through the woods west of town, the historic aura of Brookeville - where President James Madison took shelter for a day during the War of 1812 - will be lost.

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Getting by on Brookeville's narrow tree-lined lanes also fuels the frustration of many commuters. "There's a lot of swearing and a lot of yelling and a lot of dented cars," said state Del. Karen S. Montgomery, a Montgomery County Democrat who said she is pushing hard for a bypass.

After declaring in 1999 that there would be no bypass, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening agreed to allow the project if it met Smart Growth requirements he set, such as prohibiting development around Brookeville and creating a permanent buffer to prevent a planned two-lane bypass from being widened.

David Winstead, Maryland's transportation secretary under Glendening, said the governor sought to limit development to designated growth areas and opposed some bypasses because of concerns that they would spread growth outside those zones.

Glendening also resisted bypass plans for the Garrett County town of Oakland, which is bisected by Route 219, a north-south trucking route in Western Maryland. Hughesville, in Charles County, is also awaiting a bypass to deal with the growing number of vehicles passing through on Route 5, which leads from fast-growing Southern Maryland toward Washington.

The state's most recently completed bypass project, a 4 1/2 -mile, $94 million highway designed to allow beach-bound drivers on U.S. 50 to avoid bottlenecks in Salisbury, opened in October.

As for the Brookeville bypass, no timetable has been set for its construction.

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Hampstead

Eighty-seven-year-old Charles Walter has lived in Hampstead since 1939, two years before the last B&O; Railroad passenger train stopped in the town. Hampstead was once a layover on the stagecoach line from Baltimore to Carlisle, Pa. The town's Main Street is Route 30, an artery connecting parts of southern Pennsylvania with Interstate 795 and the Baltimore area.

This poses a problem for Walter, who said he has almost been hit a number of times while walking, sometimes by 18-wheelers. He now asks neighbors to pick up his mail for him rather than venture across the street to get it himself.

The problem has worsened in the 40 years the town has been waiting for a bypass, town officials say.

In 1980, 12,900 vehicles a day drove through Hampstead. In 2001, 18,075 passed through daily. If a bypass is built, the state expects 18,000 cars per day to travel the 5.8-mile, $60 million road by 2025.

The Hampstead bypass was delayed by environmental studies, which have preliminarily determined that the road would not threaten endangered bog turtles along its proposed route. Hampstead is waiting for state funds for engineering and for completing land purchases. The state has bought about a third of the land necessary to build a bypass.

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If plans for a Hampstead bypass come to fruition, Carole Hoover, who lives with her husband and three children on Main Street, said she'll consider staying in her 1920s Sears masonry home.

"It could be a really attractive town," she said of Hampstead. But now, with dust from the road seeping into her home and trash from passing cars landing in her front yard, Hoover said she might move.

But some business owners wonder whether the bypass is a good idea.

"We get more ride-by business here than anything," said Roy Harmon, owner of Hampstead Movie House Mall, a variety shop on Main Street.

Kennedy Smith, director of the National Main Street Center, which seeks to preserve small Main Street towns throughout the country, said bypasses are effective at reducing traffic volumes in towns, but they can also stifle downtown commerce.

"Truck traffic can disrupt the pleasant, quiet, walkable nature of small-town Main Streets," she said. "But nothing disrupts that pleasant way of life like a dying Main Street."

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Still, many Hampstead merchants say the heavy traffic hurts their businesses. Doug Harrell, owner of Soap Opera Laundromat & Cleaners on the north end of the town, said people won't pull off Route 30 to visit stores because they're concerned they won't be able to get back on it. Much of Harrell's business comes from senior citizens, who, he said, "wouldn't dare cross the street."

Signs prohibit cars from pulling out of Harrell's lot onto Route 30 - Harrell said that's too dangerous. He tells customers to make a left on a side street parallel to Route 30 and merge back onto the highway at an intersection with a traffic light.

A friendlier environment for pedestrians could bring more shoppers to Main Street, said Hampstead's mayor, Haven Shoemaker.

"You can't go up there and park," he said, "without putting your life in your hands."


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