Carol Ostrow moved last year, leaving her home of seven years in Montgomery County and heading to the North Laurel area in neighboring Howard County, seeking its rural ambience.
"You can see the farmland, you can see the animals, and it's very peaceful," Ostrow said of her home in the Cardinal Forest development in Scaggsville. "I liked the landscape."
That landscape could change.
The Rouse Co. is asking the county for approval to build a Columbia-style development in the area -- a mixed-use community of 1,410 single-family and multifamily homes along with business and office space and a recreation area.
Construction could start in 2000 on a project that would be one of the last links in the chain of development that stretches between Baltimore and Washington.
The Rouse plans for a parcel known as the Key property have drawn fire from a number of community organizations that predict it will mean clogged roads, crowded schools and loss of the rural atmosphere that attracted people to the area.
"We made a conscious choice to live in rural Howard County, not in Columbia," said Marilyn Watson, a member of the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee. "If we wanted to live in Columbia, we would've moved there."
But Rouse officials counter that the area is destined for development -- the only question is what type.
"It will either get developed as mixed use or as warehouse-industrial, which is what is permitted now," said Alton Scavo, senior vice president for Rouse. "The development time is now."
The issue will get its first hearing before the Howard County Planning Board on Wednesday night, a hearing that will likely deal with both the rezoning of the 522-acre site -- south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216 straddling Interstate 95 -- and Rouse's plans for it.
Development began in the rural area more than a century ago. In 1896, land in North Laurel Park was subdivided into quarter-acre lots. Communities started to spread across the area about 35 years ago.
Scavo defends Rouse's plans for the area as the best way to deal with the inevitable continuation of that development.
He says building single-family homes on spacious lots -- the development pattern in western Howard County -- would further reduce the county's surplus of land and strain infrastructure by crowding roads at rush hours and recreation areas on weekends.
Business-oriented development -- permitted under current zoning -- would have similar problems, Scavo says, because it would also fill the roads during peak hours.
His position was supported by a report released Friday by the county Department of Planning and Zoning that estimates developing the site as an employment center would increase traffic on the local road network by more than 200 percent.
A mixture of homes and businesses would be better for the site, Scavo argues.
"If you have some business and some houses there, some people will be able to work in their own community," he said. "It's a much more efficient use of the land."
But many who live in the area don't agree.
"As a mixed-use development with largely residential units, I see it compounding the problems we already have," said Greg Brown, president of Cherrytree Farms Neighborhood Organization.
Tom Flynn, president of the North Laurel Civic Association, points out that in the comprehensive rezoning of the county in 1993, the Key property was the only one of five sites in the county proposed for mixed use that did not get it.
"They realized that this site had less public facilities than any other," he said. "Our contention is that we still have a lack of public facilities and that the intention of the Zoning Board was to let this site wait [for development]."
One of the biggest concerns is the impact of the project on the local road network.
One intersection -- Route 216 and All Saints Road -- is one of the county's worst for accidents, with 14 reported last year.
Residents also complain that the intersection of Gorman and Leishear roads is over capacity and that the two-mile stretch of Gorman between Murray Hill Road and I-95 is hazardous. Gorman is the one road that would link the two sides of the project separated by I-95.
If the project attracts its estimated 3,800 residents, many of the nearby roads would be seriously at risk of crowding, said Greg Fries, who chairs the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee.
"It would be total gridlock," he said. "Nothing is appropriate until the transportation problems are resolved."
The state does have some plans for the roads in the area: $2.2 million has been earmarked to plan improvement of a three-mile stretch of Route 216 between I-95 and U.S. 29 and a roundabout plan has been proposed for the intersection of Route 216 and U.S. 29. But the roundabouts will not be built for at least three years, and Route 216 improvements will take much longer.
School crowding feared
Many in the area fear schools could also become crowded.