Renaissance overwhelms stigma of old Expensive homes, good schools, friendly ways give new image

'Tired of being bashed'

Illegal drug labs, prostitution once troubled community

November 19, 1995|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

North Laurel -- once known as a gritty, drug-ridden corner of Howard County -- is undergoing a renaissance.

No longer the home of prostitutes and illegal drug laboratories, the tightly knit community in southeastern part of the county now sports executive- and estate-style homes in neatly-manicured cul-de-sacs.

"There was a stigma attached to moving to Laurel," says Karina Zimmerman, who moved in 1989 to the Hunter's Creek neighborhood in North Laurel. "I think the image has really improved."

And with that new image has come a new-found popularity, as homebuyers are drawn to the relatively affordable houses in an area with good schools, a friendly atmosphere and easy access to Interstate 95, U.S. 29 and U.S. 1.

During the first half of this year, the North Laurel ZIP code posted the fourth-highest number of new home sales of Howard's 27 ZIP codes, behind Elkridge, Ellicott City and East Columbia.

But that growth hasn't come without pain.

Many of the area's heavily traveled roads fail county traffic safety standards. The schools are crowded. And the parks and community facilities have failed to keep pace with North Laurel's development.

"It's going to take a lot of energy by the county to focus on the needs of that area," says County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, who has organized a North Laurel planning group to study improvements to the area. "I'm optimistic, though."

North Laurel -- an area that residents are quick to distinguish from the city of Laurel in Prince George's County and from the Laurel area of Anne Arundel County -- always has had a bit of an identity problem.

As defined by Howard County, it includes the area roughly bounded by Gorman Road to the north, U.S. 29 to the west and Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties to the south and east. It has a population of 19,930, according to the county's latest estimate.

A taint from the past

But the mailing address is just "Laurel" -- a designation that also includes such fringe areas as Scaggsville. And for many in the county, the Laurel label still carries the taint of alcohol, drug and prostitution problems that date back decades.

For example, in the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s North Laurel was the site of PCP manufacturing plants that produced tens of millions of dollars of the dangerous, mind-altering substance. Police considered North Laurel to be the PCP capital of the region.

"I remember we used to see PCP labs down there all the time," says Sgt. Steve Keller, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, who worked the North Laurel beat during the height of the PCP problem.

Those days are long gone, police and residents say. The PCP kingpins are in prison. The prostitutes have moved because of tough enforcement. And the county's only all-nude dance club recently shut down, its business strangled by neighborhood hostility.

Police calls are up about 10 percent since 1993, but police say that increase is proportionate to the area's population growth and the aggressive reporting of incidents by neighbors.

These days, police say, complaints are likely to revolve around noisy youths and juvenile drinking -- annoying, but the kind of low-level problems found in many suburban communities.

"We're starting to see calls that have to do with quality of life issues," says Capt. Richard Hall, commander of the southern district. "People who move into an area like that have an expectation of peace and quiet."

And those residents aren't willing to have their community saddled with a sordid, outdated image.

"The community as a whole is tired of being bashed," says Donna Thewes, who moved into the North Laurel Park community with her husband in 1988. "This is a family-oriented area. It's the kind of community where you walk down the street and say hello to everybody."

Residents have worked hard to revamp the area's image.

In 1990, fifth-grade students managed to get the name of North Laurel Park's elementary school changed from Whiskey Bottom Elementary to Laurel Woods Elementary. Students, parents and teachers said the name tainted the school's reputation.

Four years later, the Whiskey Bottom Apartments on North Laurel became The Seasons, after a $32 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan helped renovate the complex, which had fallen into disrepair and become what residents called a magnate for drug activity.

And in April of this year, Good Guys, Howard County's only all-nude dance club, closed after residents complained that they didn't want that kind of establishment in their community. Business had declined steadily as county and state officials kept close watch on the club.

North Laurel has become an outstanding place to raise a family," says Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican who pushed for restrictions on the dance club that ultimately forced it to close for economic reasons. "But they've had to fight for everything they've gotten."

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