In the beginning, they bought wheelchairs and crutches for World War II veterans. For the children, they closed Belair Road for Halloween parades.
They fought a cemetery, a greyhound track and a drive-in theater. Farmland became suburbia, suburbia became a "growth area," and just that quickly the Perry Hall Improvement Association was throwing itself a 50th birthday party.
But even as these watchdogs of an area described as "quintessential suburbia" mark the milestone, they move closer to a crossroads. Plans for the adjacent White Marsh growth area's last major burst of homebuilding are moving forward, but the recent years' influx of residents has shown little interest in banding together.
When the houses are built and the sawdust settles, who will care enough to preserve what's left of Perry Hall's community spirit?
It's a question that nags Dorothy McMann, association president and a vocal critic of unchecked growth.
"Someone's going to have to be the watchdog," said Mrs. McMann, 63. "It's going to be up to the people who are going to be here long after I go to keep up with the county and make sure they have adequate facilities."
To her, "adequate facilities" are not only roads, water and sewers, but also schools, churches, recreational operations and an attractive main street -- the cornerstones of community life.
The first spurt of major growth in Perry Hall began in the late 1950s with neighborhoods of brick ranchers on the streets leading from Belair Road. Within a quarter-century, the community was seeing the effects of being in one of the county's two high-growth areas.
To the older residents, perhaps no project summed up the byproducts of new growth more than Cedarside Farm, a housing development built on land that had for years been used as a children's soccer field.
William J. Butt, a lifelong Perry Hall resident and president of the improvement association in the 1950s, said it would have been a perfect place for a community center with a band shell.
"For a lousy million dollars in a growth area, the county could have had a place for people to congregate," said Mr. Butt, 74.
For a half-century, the members of the Perry Hall Improvement Association have demanded a say in the area's development. They've won some battles -- you'll see no drive-in theater or dog track there. They've lost others -- like the car wash that has been approved for construction on Belair Road next to a church.
More often, they've compromised, most notably in the 3,000-acre Honeygo development. Original plans allowed for 11,000 units on what is mostly farmland near Belair Road, but that figure was cut nearly in half after lengthy debate.
County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III said the fuss raised by the group about the Honeygo plan highlighted flaws in the county's planning process. He said the breaking point came during debate over Perry Hall Farms, an area of the Honeygo project that is to include townhouses and apartments.
"It was this one where the community said, 'The system isn't working,' " said Mr. Keller. Complaints led to new rules requiring community input for planned projects and approval by an independent hearing officer, he said.
Recalling some of the land-use battles, Mrs. McMann said: "They call me anti-growth. I don't give a daggone if they put 2 million people out here, but you've got to give them adequate facilities."
Mr. Keller said, "Yes, she does pound the tables, and, yes, she does know what she wants to see, but quite frankly -- and I don't know what she'd say to this -- she's always been willing to compromise."
While issues have varied during the association's half-century, apathy has remained one constant. Two-career families moving into the area find free time scarce. Also, Mrs. McMann said, many newer residents may believe they have become involved by joining residential homeowner associations. These groups may cut grass or plow snow, but they rarely consider broader community issues, she said.
More than 40,000 people live on the improvement association's turf, bounded by Gunpowder Falls State Park on the north, White Marsh Run to the south, Philadelphia Road and Cowenton Avenue on the east and Simms Avenue to the west. But the group has only about 300 members -- despite dues of just $5 a year.
The group's future may be reflected in David Marks, its 22-year-old recording secretary. Mr. Marks, a Perry Hall native who has seen many of his friends move to Harford and Carroll counties, is a graduate student in government at the Johns Hopkins University. He predicts that Perry Hall can be more than a suburban growth zone.
Said Mr. Marks: "As the community matures, as we get through the transitional period, people will develop a sense of community."