Uneasy Times For 'Nice Little Village'

POSTMARK: PISCATAWAY

November 01, 1992|By WAYNE HARDIN

Mary Forsht-Tucker, Piscataway Citizens Association president, sums up her Piscataway this way: "We're tremendously threatened by development."

Ms. Forsht-Tucker and other community leaders of southern Prince George's County have been fighting the threat and have won some small battles but many more are ahead. Every piece of property in the area is being evaluated for a comprehensive regional zoning plan.

At stake is the future direction of Piscataway, "the only location in the county that still conveys the form of a rural village or hamlet," says a 1991 county Planning Department study. Piscataway -- four miles from the Potomac River and 25 minutes from Washington -- is something of a last dinosaur in the heavily suburban county.

"Look at that," says Father Kevin Hart, sweeping his hand out toward the empty land in front of St. Mary's Catholic Church, where he is parish priest. "This looks more like Southern Maryland than Prince George's County."

It is the place where in 1640 Father Andrew White baptized Chitomachen, emperor of Piscataway Confederation, once the dominant Southern Maryland people. In 1707, the town was authorized after the Piscataway Indians were gone. A tobacco port functioned until Piscataway Creek filled with silt; now, barely enough water flows to float a rowboat.

Piscataway never did do much with that town authorization and its charter was revoked in 1964. The village lost its post office in 1943 (leaving residents with a Clinton address).

When its time as a port ended, Piscataway became a quieter place, a hub for the surrounding farms. Rural traditions remained all these years. St. Mary's church -- off Piscataway Road 150 feet from where tobacco wharves once stood along the creek -- was its constant.

"Many families have been going to St. Mary's for years," says Father Hart. "Our records go back to the mid-1800s and some of the same names still are here."

Like Gallahan and Parker. The Gallahans and Parkers are two families whose involvement in farming started in the 19th century and continues today.

Mike Gallahan, 38, of Cherry Hill Farm on Gallahan Road, has too busy with his locally famous doughnut machine to attend many services.

"After services, people come up the hill from church and buy hot doughnuts," he says. "Father Hart sometimes gives me a plug from the altar."

Four generations of his family live in a compound on a 165-acre farm that once was more than 1,000 acres. Vegetables, fruit orchards and doughnuts are the farm's mainstays.

The Parker operation is bigger, with the family farming its land and also leasing several other farms. A Parker family member says some of the farms have been sold to developers who want the land to be farmed for now because taxes are lower for agricultural use.

Beatrice Washington, 69, connects with both church and farm, recalling walks of "two miles or more from the Parker farm to Mass." Her father and her husband sharecropped on the land. She and Mr. Washington, who died in 1976, later worked at St. Mary's and their son is cemetery caretaker.

Piscatawayans of today cherish their community and worry about its fate. Until five or six years ago, subdivisions marched down Piscataway Road from Clinton like developmental soldiers suburbanizing ruraldom. Then, the economy stopped the march north of the creek.

Now, one of the farms leased by the Parkers is the subject of a rezoning proposal. Developers have owned the Bailey Plantation, acres of fields and woods with a main house dating to the 1830s, since 1988. From the crest of a low hill, the house, red brick with four white columns and symmetrical wings added in 1926, commands the broad Piscataway Creek valley.

The owners -- Associated Companies of Bethesda -- want it rezoned for a "Villages at Piscataway" project: 1,300 "dwelling units," including town houses and apartments clustered in villages, surrounded by an 18-hole golf course, plus a commercial area.

Bailey Plantation borders the old village south of Floral Park Road, on which remain several historic homes. It touches the back yard of John Yerkie's 2 1/2-story brick house, which is covered with ivy and has huge trees across the front. From the 1790s to the 1840s, the house was a tavern.

"Piscataway is a nice little village," Mr. Yerkie says. "In 28 years, only two new houses have been built near us."

If the plan is approved as proposed, says Arthur G. Rosenberg, vice president of Associated, the company will put $300 per housing unit into a fund to help preserve the historic area, which he calls "a treasure."

"I think it is a wonderful plan, good for us and good for Piscataway," he says. "But some in the community disagree."

On Oct. 1, with a 5-0 vote, the planning board sided with Ms. Forsht-Tucker and other community groups, and recommended against rezoning. But there still are more steps ahead. "The request goes to the County Council for a final determination, probably by spring of 1993," says Tom Lockard, senior county planner.

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