Carroll County is Melvin and Pat Baile's backyard -- a peaceful spot in Medford with a towering sycamore, a pond inhabited by Canada geese and their farm stretched out behind.
Carroll County also is the crowded roads Thomas C. Myers faces on his daily commute to the Baltimore bank where he works. As he drives from his town house in Westminster to Route 140 and then to the expressways, he knows he's in a traffic jam waiting to happen.
Carroll County -- cow country and bustling suburb, rural sanctuary and urban sprawl.
"It's a county in transition," said Morna Conway, owner of The Conway Group, a Westminster advertising and marketing agency. "If the county were a company, it would be in trouble, because it wouldn't have a clear goal or statement of mission."
One thing is for sure: Carroll is growing and changing and nobody can stop it.
Union National Bank President Joseph H. Beaver Jr. said Westminster has the potential to be another Towson, a thriving county seat and medical and educational center.
"It is not necessarily far-fetched to have high-rises, office buildings and living areas" in downtown Westminster, he said. The mix of business and residential units would help the area survive economically, said Beaver, whose family goes back seven generations here.
"I would like Carroll County to prove over the long haul that you can have a mixed economy that provides for people and their needs in a fashion no one else has done," he said. "I'd like us to be an example for the rest of the world."
But continued growth and development don't mean Carroll will lose its rural roots, said Beaver, 56, who said he enjoys the Carroll 4-H/FFA Fair and the Reese Fire Co. Carnival as much as a night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Robert L. Jones, former county cooperative extension service director, said the Farm Museum and Agriculture Center in Westminster will help the county maintain its rural identity.
"Those kinds of things continue to help give Carroll County a distinct identity, so it's not just part of the urban sprawl."
Mount Airy farmer C. William Knill, 50, who has lived his entire life in South Carroll, said he used to resist the changes that came with a growing population.
"At one time I was adamantly opposed to it all. I just thought it was an infringement on the country," he said, adding that he's softened his attitude, partly because he's become friends with many new residents through his church.
But he still feels what he calls "people pressure." His dairy farm, on Route 27 near the Twin Arch Shopping Center, is a prime spot for residential development. Until the housing market slowed this year, he and his wife received calls every month from real estate agents asking them to sell, he said.
The county's population has almost doubled in the last 20 years, to about 125,000 residents. Projections show the number of Carroll countians will increase another 36 percent, to almost 170,000 by the year 2010.
A 1989 county study found Carroll's population is increasing by about 1,000 households a year. A regional study found the median household income last year was $43,200.
Population growth in all but two of the county's eight municipalities has been between 70 percent and 154 percent in the last 20 years. New Windsor and Union Bridge each have grown about 6 percent in that period.
Thomas K. Ferguson, president of Carroll County Bank and Trust Co., said if the county wasn't growing and changing, young people wouldn't want to stay.
"To subscribe to the philosophy of no growth really means shriveling on the vine," he said.
Even though he can't compete with wages and benefits offered by larger Baltimore banks, Ferguson said he's had some success recruiting employees by emphasizing the comforts of living here. Employees can get to and from work quickly, pick up a sick child at school if necessary and enjoy the country at their doorstep.
"The quality of life we have here is what's so precious," he said.
Mike Maholchic, president of the Carroll County Chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said even though the county is experiencing a slowdown in new home construction, it still is an attractive location, and land prices continue to be lower than in surrounding counties.
Single-family homes and town houses priced at $100,000 or less still are selling fairly well, but the county needs more of these "affordable" homes, he said.
Jones, who now sells real estate part time, said it's important to have more lower-priced housing. With the median price for a home in Carroll last month at $139,436, up 3 percent from the same time last year, many middle-income families have a hard time buying.
"We have to watch that. We can't have a balanced county if we don't have service workers. We can't have all executives living in the county," he said.