Village celebrates 25 years with memories, worries

November 01, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Oakland Mills is the only village in Columbia to boast an ice rink and its own post office. It is also the birthplace of the Columbia Community Players, a successful repertory group now in its 21st season, and home to some of the New Town's oldest trees, including a century-old beech.

On the eve of the village's 25th anniversary, residents say Oakland Mills remains a great place to live and work but they worry about growing crime and traffic.

They also fear that the community's aging schools can't compete with ones that are bigger, better-equipped and more technologically advanced.

"We're worried about safety and traffic -- and now education," said Beth Bohac, a 17-year resident. "The village is 25 years old. We're getting middle-aged."

When Oakland Mills opened in late October 1969, it was Columbia's third village and the first built east of U.S. 29. The village center, with 14 merchants and a branch bank, was the second in Columbia.

Homebuyers flocked to the area. They included Margaret Watson, 63, a retired nurse who moved with her family to the village in 1973.

During the years, she has watched her three-bedroom home quadruple in value from $35,900 to $147,000. She's also made lifelong friends.

"We all know each other," she said. "We look out for each other. If we have to leave town, we'll leave keys with a neighbor."

Mrs. Watson, who bought peaches and apples from Sewell's Orchard before it closed in the 1980s, remembers when Oakland Mills was farmland, woods and fields.

"I thought I'd never see so many houses," she said. "So much stuff wasn't here. Trees were no bigger than this," she said, her hands 4 feet above the ground. "Sewers weren't there, nothing but woods."

According to the Rouse Co.'s Howard County Research and Development Co., Oakland Mills had 9,606 homes in 1974, the first year the company began keeping statistics. (Rouse Co. developed Columbia.) Since then, only 170 homes have been built, for a total of 9,776.

A relatively stable population reaffirms residents' perceptions that outside development has brought more traffic to the village.

"Southside traffic concerns us," said David A. Hatch, chairman of the village board of directors. The opening of Broken Land Parkway two years ago has added traffic to streets such as Farewell, Kilimanjaro and Stevens Forest, residents said. Now a village board traffic committee is studying ways to cope with the increased traffic.

Residents also perceive more crime in Oakland Mills, especially burglaries and vandalism.

The back wall of the village center's Royal Farm Store shows the words "Jersey Boy" and "Louie" in black spray paint. And at the community's three pools, lights have been smashed and deck chairs thrown into the water.

"It's still a nice place to live, but a few bad stories change your comfort level," Erin Peacock, the village manager, said.

Beth and Ralph Bohac agree. They said crime wasn't a major issue when they moved to Oakland Mills in 1977.

"You didn't worry about kids being on the bike paths, you didn't worry about yourself being on the bike paths," said Mr. Bohac, who doesn't permit his 8-year-old daughter to travel alone on the meandering walkways. "You have to be aware."

Residents also are concerned about the community's older schools. As villages such as River Hill get new education facilities and modern computer equipment at schools, some worry that Oakland Mills may fall behind.

"We want to make sure we keep pace," said Mr. Hatch, the village board chairman.

One school, Stevens Forest Elementary, is embarking on its first major renovation since opening 22 years ago.

Under a four-month plan that begins next spring, the school will receive 25 new computers, a new gym and expanded playground. The school's existing gym will be turned into a fine arts room, and a new heating and air-conditioning system will be installed. More families in which both parents work have altered the social landscape of Oakland Mills. In April, the Village Craft Shop closed after 18 years. Staffed by volunteers, the consignment store sold residents' pottery, wall hangings, handmade puppets and other items.

"When women stayed at home, they made the craft shop a vital part of the town," Ms. Peacock said. "When women went to work and came home tired every night, they didn't go out again."

She said people still are eager to volunteer but don't have as much time.

She added: "I see a renewed interest in the community. People are oriented toward the village center. I see a re-emphasis to establish that and that's why I'm excited about the reading center."

A week ago, the former craft shop in the Other Barn reopened as the Oakland Mills Reading Center, where children can listen to stories and adults can discuss the latest novel on the New York Times best-seller list. "The future is bright," Mr. Hatch said. "We have a good population. We've had 25 years of living together and recreating together."

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