St. Mary's braces for arrival of suburbia Growth of Patuxent has a wider impact

November 10, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN — An article published in Sunday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the dates and circumstances of the founding of Hollywood, Md., and California, Md. According to "History of St. Mary's County, Maryland, 1634-1990," written by Regina Combs Hammett, the post office at Hollywood, named for a holly tree, was established in 1865, and the post office at California, named according to legend by homesick Californians, was estabished in 1874.

The Sun regrets the errors.

LEONARDTOWN -- Relentless traffic on Route 235 in St. Mary's County cuts through Hollywood and California -- towns named 50 years ago by homesick newcomers to the then-new Patuxent River Naval Air Station -- toward Lexington Park and the base itself, past Lowe's and Kmart, Food Lion, Blair's Jewelry, Wendy's and Wal-Mart, Applebee's, Checker's, a pair of real estate offices and a 7-Eleven, past a small shopping center and Taco Bell, Roy Rogers, McDonald's and NAPA Auto Parts, an Amoco station, Foot Locker, the International House of Pancakes, Ledo Pizza, and so forth and so on.

Suburbia has come with stunning swiftness to this once-rural sliver of Southern Maryland, and the latest boom is just beginning.

Employment in and around the naval air station, 100 miles south of Baltimore and 65 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., is expected to swell by about 13,000 military, civilian and defense contractor jobs over the next two years.


But even as residents -- some of them with ancestral roots dating back to the 1600s -- long for their piece of the prosperity pie, they fear the loss of a beloved way of life and mourn what has already disappeared in a few short years.

"When I came here eight years ago, people were saying, 'Please don't let us become Waldorf,' " says Jon R. Grimm, director of planning and zoning for St. Mary's County. "Now it's, 'Please don't let us become Prince George's County.' "

Nowhere is the ambivalence greater than in little Leonardtown, population 1,600.

If the area of greatest growth were plotted as a triangle, Leonardtown would be at the southwest corner, with Lexington Park and Hollywood to the east and north.

Ten miles and a world away from Lexington Park, Leonardtown, the oldest incorporated town in Maryland (1728, one year before Baltimore) and the county seat of St. Mary's, appears, at first sight, to be an untouched island in a sea of late 20th-century change.

The barber pole rotates red, white and blue outside Buckler's Barbershop, where still printed on the mirror behind the lone chair is "Warren," for Warren Buckler, dead now these 23 years.

Bells from the Church of the Nazarene downtown peal out the hour, and old men sit in the afternoon sun on a bench beside the World War I memorial to the town's lost heroes, whose names are divided by "colored" and "white."

There is no home delivery of mail for most residents, so folks gather at the post office, where, until the new postmaster came with his big city ways, a first name and a box number were all a letter needed.

The streets bear the names of the area's founding families -- Mattingly, Guyther, Abell -- as do the town's prominent citizens and public servants. An introduction often carries the footnote that so-and-so is descended from a high sheriff or an indentured servant who arrived, penniless, in 1648.

Folks talk of Leonardtown's past glory as a Colonial tobacco port and, more recently, of the days of the Floating Theater that anchored off the town pier and of St. Mary's Hotel, where everybody who was anybody held any event of consequence.

But the Floating Theater and the St. Mary's Hotel are long gone, as are many other hallmarks of a more vibrant past.

And when the scraggly shrubs were removed from the town square during a recent beautification effort, work crews found dozens of hypodermic syringes, all too obvious evidence that while progress may have passed Leonardtown by, the problems of modern urban life have not.

Town at a crossroads

"We really are at a crossroads," says Robin Guyther, town administrator, whose family has been in St. Mary's County since 1632. "We need growth, but it has to be planned growth, careful growth."

While Lexington Park is bursting with commercial, retail and office development, Leonardtown leaders are hoping to capitalize on the town's reputation for quality of life and one of the lowest property tax rates in the state to attract high-dollar residential development.

Within the town limits, several housing developments are proposed or under way.

The largest and most discussed of these is the proposed Tudor Hall Farm, 435 acres bounded by Breton Bay and McIntosh Run and owned by one branch of the Mattingly family.

Mark Vogel, the Prince George's County developer whose boom-and-bust career of real estate developments and racetracks came to typify the excess and collapse of the Washington, D.C., market, is proposing to build 600-plus luxury homes, a golf course, hotel and marina.

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