When word spread that the old Koontz farm on Westminster's western edge was going to be carved into a shopping strip and nearly 200 homes, neighbors overlooking the emerald hills were understandably upset.
Not by the loss of a scenic vista, but by the price tag on the homes that would replace it.
Although the four- and five-bedroom houses would command at least $210,000 -- well over the $150,000 average in Westminster -- they would cost much less than the homes in Cliveden Reach, an affluent community being built on the outskirts of the farm.
Now, in a suburban battle of the haves vs. the haves, residents of Cliveden Reach charge that the proposed development poses a threat to their investment and represents an act of betrayal by local officials.
After the Westminster Common Council endorsed zoning changes that would favor developers of the Estates at Collegetown last month, angry calls poured into City Hall -- even more than on the hot-button issue of extending mass transit to the county seat from Baltimore. Many residents also vow revenge at the ballot box next spring, when three of the council's five members are up for re-election.
"We've been betrayed by the Common Council," says Richard Dunphy, a Cliveden Reach resident and vocal critic of the proposed development. "They heard the people. They heard what our position was. They heard through our letters and our statements.
"And they ignored us."
Dunphy bought his four-bedroom home in December 1995. He would not disclose the price, but homes in the neighborhood start at $325,000 -- for a rancher.
What sold him on Cliveden Reach was its long, private entryway. A winding, tree-lined lane is the only entrance to the community of handsome Colonials. Built on land that was once part of Koontz farm, the neighborhood is governed by strict rules found in every homeowner's deed.
Dunphy can recite the regulations from memory:
No farm animals. No junked cars in the driveway. No more than two pets per household. Each homeowner must plant at least four deciduous trees, and foundations must be covered by brick -- cement is not acceptable. Above ground pools are forbidden, as are basketball hoops.
One neighbor dared to defy the ban and installed a hoop in his driveway. He was told, politely but firmly, that it had to go. It went.
"Property values are a big concern to us," says Dunphy, who approves of the rules because "they help protect our investment."
Says Dunphy's wife, Anita: "It seems [the Collegetown developers] are trying to duplicate Columbia -- they're creating a self-contained community. If that's what we had wanted, we would have bought in Howard County."
Property owners react
The Dunphys are not alone. About 20 property owners have sent letters to City Hall opposing the proposed development.
C. Todd Brown, an Eldersburg resident who plans to retire in Westminster, was among them. He and his wife bought a Cliveden Reach lot last summer and expect to be in a new four-bedroom home at the end of this month.
Like many of the 20-or-so families that have settled in the neighborhood, Brown took great pains to make sure the move was a wise one. Before signing settlement papers, he spoke to county officials and city planners about the future of the 130-acre Koontz farm, which is zoned residential and permits homes on half-acre lots.
Officials told him that the rolling fields along Route 140 would be developed into a neighborhood much like Cliveden Reach. At that time, there was no thought of commercial development.
"I took them at face value, but before I even get my house built, they go and change everything. It's unbelievable," says Brown.
The council's vote last month amounts to a preliminary nod of approval for developers Martin K. P. Hill and Lawrence Macks to create a 17-acre commercial center and build homes on quarter-acre lots on about 50 acres.
Many neighbors also fret about the impact construction would have on nearby wetlands. City planners have said they would like to see a road cut through the wetlands that separate Cliveden Reach from Koontz farm -- a plan that neighbors, the developers and local leaders oppose.
Others worry about increased traffic along Route 140 and the effect the Estates at Collegetown would have on Meadow Branch, a stream that wends its way from nearby Fountain Valley through Koontz farm and beyond.
"How are they going to keep children out of the Meadow Branch? Can they guarantee that it won't be polluted?" asks David Nottingham, a retired English professor who lives in Fountain Valley on 90 acres of rich farmland.
"There was a time when I could sit on my porch and hear nothing but cattle and pheasants," Nottingham says. "Now it sounds like the roar of a waterfall, with all the automobile traffic that goes by on one side and the bulldozers making way for houses on the other."