A rural dream has become a traffic nightmare Suburban land rush gives urbanization to Hickory

November 26, 1995|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,SUN STAFF

Hickory used to be just a bump in the road, a sleepy crossroads.

But urbanization -- the great migration that turns farmland into suburban housing developments and shopping centers -- has shaken the little Harford County community awake to a traffic nightmare.

During evening rush hours, those who moved to the cornfields of the north county to escape city congestion find themselves in traffic backups that can stretch for a mile -- from the old crossroads of U.S. 1 and Route 543 in Hickory to the Bel Air roller rink.

Add Hickory to the list of country crossroads communities overtaken by the suburban land rush -- places like Clarksville in Howard County, Eldersburg in Carroll, Davidsonville in Anne Arundel, Sparks in Baltimore County and Harford's Fallston and Forest Hill, all described by the State Highway Administration as swamped.

"Oh, it's ridiculous out there," says Dottie Harkins, who has lived in Hickory for 42 of her 62 years. "I don't know where all the people are coming from."

The traffic is so bad that Mrs. Harkins doesn't venture out during rush hour; if she wants to go north on U.S. 1, she must first drive halfway to Bel Air before she can turn around and drive back. She is so fearful of the traffic that she hasn't even walked across the two-lane road to try out a new restaurant, Goodfellas.

L "If I tried to cross that street, I'd get killed," she says.

Hickory itself is not much bigger than it was in 1953, when Mrs. Harkins got married and began raising a family. Then, there was a tavern, a restaurant and motel, a service station, a cannery and a baseball field where Baltimore Oriole Dick Hall pitched for the Hickory semipro team.

Today, a WaWa convenience store sits where the tavern used to be, the baseball diamond is gone, and Goodfellas, a trendy restaurant with such things as potato skins and baby back ribs on the menu, has replaced the old motel.

"Booming," said Goodfellas owner Gary Genovese of his year-old business. "We must have 50,000 cars that come by here every day. We're surrounded."

Changes that affected Hickory took place outside the crossroads. In vast stretches to the north and west, nearly 6,000 residents have arrived in the past 15 years, census data show, bringing the area population to 26,000 of Harford's 210,000 residents.

Along the road to Hickory -- named for a tree now hard to find there -- motorists see housing developments with names such as Pelhamwood, Hickory Overlook and Henderson Manor.

"There have been a lot of farms up that way that have sprouted four or five houses in the last 10 years," said County Councilman Robert S. Wagner, who represents the area. "I guess if you add all of that up, it could be staggering."

Ask anyone who has waited in the evening rush-hour traffic.

"You just don't move," said Carol Deibel, who gets snared each )) day on her way to and from work.

"We never come on Route 1, unless you want to sit there for an hour," said Joan Skleres, 62, who has lived on Route 543 since moving from Baltimore County in 1974. "You have to be stupid to come up Route 1 at 4:30 p.m."

Instead, Mrs. Skleres said she takes back roads and "burns a lot of gas" to avoid the daily backups.

The charm of country living has been lost for Mrs. Skleres, who also noted that her house has been burglarized three times in the past five years.

"You can put my name in there and tell them that all I have left is a piano," she said. "And if they can carry that out, they're good."

Relief is on the way, although slowly. The highway administration is planning a bypass that will take motorists from the end of the Bel Air bypass and reconnect them to U.S. 1 north of Hickory.

But that road, now in the design phase, is at least five years from being built, said Ken McDonald, a project engineer with SHA.

Councilman Wagner, a farmer, thinks it might be a case of too little, too late. State officials have been talking about building the bypass for at least two decades.

"Each year they put it off, the traffic increases," he said. "And it's already at peak capacity."

James Edwards Jr., a Baltimore lawyer who moved to Forest Hill from Abingdon a few years ago to escape the congestion of that high-growth end of the county, finds growth following him up past Hickory.

"Some of the older residents, they said, 'You're taking Bel Air and you're going to turn it into another Towson,' " said Mr. Edwards, who recently argued against a 538-unit housing development on U.S. 1 near the Bel Air bypass. If that development and others are approved, Mr. Edwards said, "it will be a three-ring circus up here."

As for Mrs. Harkins, she readily recalls the old days, before Hickory even had a traffic light. Folks would gather at Cappy's Tavern next to her home to eat crab cakes and drink beer, and on Sundays the Hickory baseball team would play to large crowds across the street.

An 18-year-old Dick Hall pitched there in 1949, earning $20 a game while leading the Hickory team to the Susquehanna League championship. Several thousand people came to watch Hickory beat Elkton for the title, Mr. Hall recalled.

"I loved Hickory," said Mr. Hall, now 65 and a Baltimore certified public accountant.

"This was always a neat place to live," said Mrs. Harkins, who raised six children in Hickory and now has 10 grandchildren. "It was close to Bel Air, close to church, close to school. We had a little grocery store here. There wasn't much we didn't have here."

Traffic rumbles past her tidy home, a noisy reminder of how things have changed. "Of course, I don't hear too well, so maybe it's a good thing."

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