The meandering pathway that cuts through Columbia's Long Reach village offers the kind of tranquil seclusion found throughout the town's 80 miles of walking and bicycle trails: Tall trees form a canopy above, birds in the air sing, a small brook bubbles along the ground.
But also typical of the pathway: It scares some people to death.
Throughout Columbia, parents who fear crime steer their children away from the paths, which are a key element of the 29-year-old planned community's design that had children walking to and from school.
Adults also are avoiding the paths at certain times and under certain conditions, according to recent interviews with Columbia residents.
"We don't allow our kids on the trails by themselves," says Dennis Manzoli, while sitting behind the wheel of his minivan last week outside Phelps Luck Elementary School, waiting for three of his five kids to finish school.
Seclusion causes concern
The seclusion of the paths -- which typically cut behind houses and weave through wooded areas -- is cause for concern, acknowledges Sgt. Steve Keller, a Howard County Police Department spokesman.
"Criminals don't like to be seen," Keller says. "They don't like to take a lot of time, they don't like to make a lot of noise."
Officials at the Columbia Association (CA), the huge homeowners association that manages the pathways, say the paths remain relatively safe -- especially during the day. But they caution anyone from using the paths alone.
Still, the CA official who manages the paths, Fred Pryor, says they are not as dangerous as many residents believe. "I don't see what they base that on," Pryor says.
In at least one case, residents are alarmed over an event that apparently didn't happen -- a purported rape along a Lake Elkhorn pathway that supposedly occurred July 13. Police now say the woman who reported the incident has changed her story and does not want to pursue criminal charges. "We do not believe a rape occurred at Lake Elkhorn," Keller says.
Howard police do not track incidents along Columbia's paths, nor does CA, so it is difficult to ascertain crime trends. But CA is moving to bring more of a police presence on the paths.
Because the paths are privately owned by CA, the homeowners association must use a county provision known as Title 19 to allow county police to enforce laws there without a specific CA complaint.
In recent years, CA has brought certain trouble spots in Columbia's open space under Title 19 protection. Now it wants to give all open space that protection by next spring.
This contrasts with the idyllic network described in a welcome-to-Columbia slide show produced by Columbia's developers, the Rouse Co.
In one scene, a picture shows an elementary school-age child riding his bike while a child's voice says: "I think it's incredibly easy. I can just get on my bike and go anywhere I want on a bike path. It takes you halfway across Columbia. I love that."
Later in the slide show, a narrator says: "The paths and the schools were well-designed so children would have the opportunity to walk to school and to ride on the bike paths to their friends. And it really gave a sense of neighborhood and community."
Howard County school officials still consider Columbia's pathways and sidewalks adequate transportation for first- through eighth-graders. If a child lives within a mile of a school, the student is not eligible for bus service, according to school officials.
Last year, the parents of two Phelps Luck students complained to school officials that the paths were not safe. They lived within a mile of the school and wanted bus service.
But the county school board denied their request, saying the route was safe.
Some parents feel the paths are safe for their children.
Bill Harbelaez, whose 4-year-old and 7-year-old sons attend Stevens Forest Elementary School in Oakland Mills village, does not fear the paths. "They're very vocal," he says of his boys. "And they're very fast-moving."
But Harbelaez appears to be in the minority.
Thursday afternoon, only seven unsupervised children leaving Phelps Luck Elementary School could be seen using a path that extends southward from the school. They traveled in a group of three and a group of four.
That's what they should do, says Pam Mack, a CA spokeswoman. "Today's children shouldn't walk anywhere alone," she says.
At the Phelps Luck path Thursday, two parents walking along the path to retrieve their children from school said they would not let them walk alone.
Few walk alone
"I hardly ever see children walking alone on the paths," says Bonnie Boudjeda, who picked up her third-grade daughter Jackie.
Also that day, a 44-year-old woman walking with her daughter along the Phelps Luck path said she is particularly fearful in the summer -- when thick foliage makes the paths even more isolated.