High up on a ridge where American Indians once set camp, overlookinga lake whose waters once flowed through the Little Patuxent River, civilization comes in the form of a simple wooden fence and a trail sign describing the Oxbow Nature Preserve.
Outside the heavily wooded area, signs of development are everywhere. Workers clear land and pour foundations for the first homes at Russett Center, the new 613-acre community at the corner of Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 198, West County's third large-scale planned unit development.
The next decade undoubtedly will bring overwhelming change to thecorner of West County with the state's only natural freshwater lake.It will bring a total of 3,500 new houses, town houses and apartments at Russett, more stores and businesses along Route 198 and thousands of residents.
But by the time the last Russett home is built, the view from the ridge will look much as it did in the Indians' day, the developers say.
They expect the marshy lake below to appear quiet and still, fringed by tall grasses and trees, a sanctuary for beaver, wood ducks, mallard, blue winged teal and the great blue heron.
"It's going to stay that way," said Bob Woodward, president of Lovell Land, Inc., a partner in the joint venture with Coscan/Adler Limited Partnership. "If there were others, they're gone. Development has wiped them out."
The developer will deed its portion of the 70-acre lake and the surrounding 150 acres to the county Department of Recreation and Parks, which will manage the area as a nature preserve. The Nature Conservancy, a national non-profit organization dedicated tohelping landowners preserve natural areas, had negotiated a purchaseof 50 acres of Oxbow for the state Department of Natural Resources, which will turn its portion over to the county as well.
The Russett Center Limited Partnership hopes to dedicate the park to the countyofficially next month, during a ceremony to launch the community. Several of the six homebuilders already have begun constructing houses.
As a first step, Russett has completed the first of several overlooks on its property, stops along trails the developer will carve outnext to the lake. Those pathways will connect to a 2 1/2-mile systemof hiking and biking trails that will wind through the community.
A cleared area with a fence along the ridge gives nature watchers a view of Oxbow Lake, while keeping them far enough away to prevent them from disturbing the lake.
The lake, once a crescent-shaped bend in the Little Patuxent River, was created by beavers building dams.
Today, it houses an unusual variety of plants and animals, said Joanie Thomasson, chief of the office of planning and construction for Recreation and Parks.
"It's rare to find in a really developed county and in a developed area of the county that pristine a collection of plants and birds and other critters," added Tolly Peuleche, chief of environmental programs for the parks department. "The water qualityis high. It's been well-protected by steep slopes that are wooded."
Thomasson said the county must finish surveying the lake's boundaries before considering whether to develop a nature preserve master plan. The county might consider building a nature center and offering limited access to the lake someday, she said.
"We're talking about a pretty fragile area," Peuleche said. "Anything we plan to do would be very passive in nature."
By preserving the wetlands and as manytrees as possible throughout the community, Russett has joined the current development trend toward building around, rather than bulldozing through, the natural environment.
Woodward said the nature preserve will offer residents something that development in the past has taken away.
"It brings a piece of wild and natural countryside into the middle of a heavily developed urban corridor," he said. "If residents have the convenience of Baltimore and Washington and the quality of life that this will bring, you have the best of both worlds."
Russett opened a sales center in June, off the Route 198 main entrance. Some 1,500 visitors have stopped in since then, and Russett has signed 60 sales contracts so far, Woodward said.
The homes, which include single detached homes, town houses, condominiums and rental apartments, will range in price from $90,000 for a condo to $250,000 for a single-family home.