For almost 30 years, there have been two Howard counties: the urban, liberal eastern county of Columbia, and the rural, conservative western county of not-Columbia.
Over the decades, eastern Howard's booming population received new schools, new highways, libraries, fire stations and other county services. At the same time, western Howard saw its old schools grow older and its two-lane roads become ever more congested.
Populous Columbia and the eastern half of the county got everything from Howard's government, western Howard residents often say, while the rural west mostly was ignored.
Now, some of these perceived disparities are being addressed by the county. But for western Howard, that could be a double-edged sword.
The growing migration from Baltimore, Washington and the two cities' suburbs already is threatening western Howard's rural landscape and way of life.
And new schools, roads and other amenities may attract even more newcomers.
"People have found that new infrastructure, particularly new roads, makes their little area a bull's eye for new development," says Susan B. Gray, a Highland attorney whose failed bid for the county's executive office last fall was aimed at slowing western Howard's growth.
For Ms. Gray, Route 32's transition from winding two-lane road to straight four-lane highway -- and its impact on the town of Clarksville -- is a perfect example.
Clarksville residents fought for years to keep its rural character. But in 1992, the County Council changed much of the center of the town's zoning from 3-acre homesites to commercial.
Now state construction of the new Route 32 has cut through the middle of Clarksville. Where once only rural homes stood, a flashy, 5-acre auto sales park has risen.
"What has happened to that town is an absolute outrage," Ms. Gray says. And it's already enough to drive some longtime Clarksville residents, such as Debby Pappy, to leave the area.
Ms. Pappy and her family have lived in Clarksville for 18 years, on a 3-acre lot overlooking farms that have sold their development rights to Howard's farmland preservation program. The setting -- streams in her back yard draw frequent deer and other wildlife -- would seem to match the dreams of many.
But now her idyllic, $400,000 home is for sale. Her family is moving to an even more rural area in South Carolina -- even though the couple will have to make periodic trips to their business in Elkridge.
"When we first moved here, there was a rural flavor to Howard County," she says. "There were many more farmers. Especially in Clarksville, everyone was a close neighbor. Now it's a community of strangers. That's sad."
One problem not new to Clarksville is school crowding.
Ms. Pappy started testifying about school crowding before the county school board almost a decade ago when her son Paul attended Clarksville Elementary. Now he's at Atholton High, the county's most crowded high school, with 35 to 38 students in his classes.
Schools long have been the source of much of western Howard's sense of disparity -- in large part because many of Howard's schools over the past few decades have been built in and around Columbia on land donated by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.
In the past two years, the county has opened new middle and elementary schools in western Howard.
But as the west opens to more development, growth in its school-age population is outpacing school construction.
Pointers Run Elementary School, for example, opened in 1991 with a capacity of 544 students and an enrollment of just 352.
This school year -- as a result of the opening of River Hill, Columbia's most western village -- the elementary's enrollment has zoomed to 611 pupils, or 67 students more than the school's capacity.
The county also has built a new high school that will serve some parts of the western county, but primarily western Columbia.
Opened in September, River Hill High School must first house Wilde Lake High classes while that school is torn down and rebuilt -- a telling priority for some west county residents.
"Wilde Lake High School has been operating 20 years, and now they're knocking it down and building a new one," notes Barbara Warfield, who owns a Clarksville farm. Meanwhile, western Howard's only high school, Glenelg, has been standing for 37 years, and there are no plans to replace it with a more modern facility.
This perceived double standard is particularly irksome for west Howard residents because they tend to live in larger, more valuable homes
that generate more tax revenue than they actually require in county services.
Inversely, eastern Howard's smaller home lots, townhouses and
apartments tend to require more services than they pay for in taxes.
County officials long have countered that to build more schools, libraries and roads, more commercial development is needed.
Residential development generally costs more in services than it pays in taxes, while commercial properties pay for more services than they need.