Rapid growth pressures ability to save ambience

October 02, 1994|By Charlotte Sommers | Charlotte Sommers,Special to The Sun

It wasn't a joyous occasion when John Myers, a manager for Clorox in Atlanta, broke the news to his wife, Robin, that they would be relocating to the company's Aberdeen facility. The Myerses loved their congenial small Georgia town and worried they'd wind up in an anonymous suburb in Maryland.

"But when we saw Bel Air," Mrs. Myers says in a genuine Southern drawl, "it just felt like home."

A bustling town in the heart of Harford County, Bel Air is indeed small, less than 3 square miles of gently rolling hills and tree-lined streets. And during a leisurely stroll down Main Street on a sunny late summer day, that small-town ambience is still evident.

In the square in front of the Harford County Courthouse, an elegant Colonial edifice that is the centerpiece of the town, a hot dog vendor chats with a customer in the shade of a poplar tree. Along the busy avenue, people in business attire feed parking meters and jaywalk as they scurry to keep appointments.

Many of the buildings on Main Street house government offices, banks and law firms, but there are offbeat businesses as well -- a storefront art school where students can be seen working at their easels, a private detective agency, a dog grooming salon and a cluster of antique shops.

The architecture is a jumble of new and old, contemporary and traditional. Flower boxes filled with red and yellow mums line a block where a 19th-century house has been converted to a law office. An old brick church has found new life as a youth center. There's been an attempt at preserving some unity of style, as even new buildings of contemporary design display brick facades and Palladian windows.

At Boyd & Fulford Pharmacy, a thriving 102-year-old establishment with a distinctive black-and-white tile frontage, proprietor Mary Street, whose family has been in the area since 1649, is eager to share her insights. "Sure, there's still a small town feeling," she said, "people really care about each other here."

But Ms. Street, who is actively involved in the Bel Air Civic Association, expresses concern that politicians are "ripping the heart out of the town." She was outraged when the post office was moved outside the town limits, and helped lead the charge against moving the library by gathering petition signatures.

Traffic, services problems

There are other, more pressing problems, as the constant roar of traffic down the narrow one-way street suggests.

The greater Bel Air area is experiencing phenomenal growth and the town is struggling to cope with the traffic and service problems generated by the influx.

Russ Poole, chairman of the Board of Town Commissioners and the figurehead mayor, commented: "Commercial and residential development outside the town limits has exerted tremendous pressure on us. Traffic is terrible. Right now there is a task force of Bel Air, county and state highway agencies looking at the situation."

It is estimated that the number of linear miles of road in Bel Air has doubled over the past 15 to 20 years. Getting through town at rush hour is a challenge, and there's even been talk of a Bel Air beltway to allow traffic to bypass the town.

Elizabeth Carven, community development administrator with the town's Department of Planning and Zoning, estimates that, while town inhabitants number less than 10,000, the population of the greater Bel Air area has swollen to 55,000. But Ms. Carven makes the point that "all development is not bad development. We must have a commercial-industrial tax base."

Controversies over development dominate town meetings and growth control has become a focal point of coming local elections.

According to Jerry Curry, a real estate agent with Joan Ryder & Associates, there are four major enticements that draw people to the Bel Air area.

"The excellent reputation of the school system, the convenience of the central location near I-95, the small-town ambience and the lower cost of living in the area. People feel they get a good quality of life here and they get more for their housing dollar."

Types of available housing run the gamut from condos (about $75,000) to luxury townhouses ($90,000 to $130,000) to executive single-family homes (as high as $600,000).

When the Myerses moved from their small Georgia town, they were attracted to the older, established neighborhood of Glenwood, with its big trees, spacious yards and diversity of neighbors. An unexpected benefit has been the access to cultural attractions in the area. "We've only been here since spring," said Mrs. Myers, "and already we've taken trips to Washington, D.C., New York and the Amish country."

Other newcomers are frustrated city dwellers, like Rose Marie Cherry, who moved to Bel Air "to get away from the heat and congestion of the city." Ms. Cherry, who retired from a 33-year career as an administrator with Johns Hopkins University, sold her rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore and in May bought a new one-story condo.

Starter families are mainstay

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