Joan Lancos, chairwoman of the Howard County Planning Board, has heard her share of complaints from county residents about new homes sprouting in their back yards.
But this was different.
At a recent hearing on Cherrytree Park, a mixed-use development proposed at U.S. 29 and Route 216 in Scaggsville, residents of the adjacent subdivision came armed with some unusual critiques of the project. Would the playground be big enough for all the young families that would be moving in? Would the roads be wide enough to fit firetrucks? Would the development's sewage pump shed mar the views from the new homes?
These concerns had one thing in common: They had almost nothing whatsoever to do with the residents who were voicing them. Instead, they were all meant to improve the new development for the people who would be moving into it -- the very people whom the existing neighbors, the ones attending the hearing, would rather do without.
Why such neighborly consideration for unwanted neighbors? Because, the concerned residents later said, if they had to have several hundred new faces moving in next door, they would rather they be smiling ones than surly ones.
"If it was up to me, I'd like to live on the top of a mountain. But most people don't do what I want them to do. Failing that, why not put myself in the shoes of the people who are buying [the homes]?" said Craig Ostrom, whose home on Scaggsville Road will face the office park portion of the new development. "They're our neighbors, and if we can't dictate who they are, we at least want them to be as happy as possible."
Such altruism used be in short supply in Howard County and other suburbs known for a "pull up the drawbridge" mentality, Lancos said. But as more residents come to accept, however grudgingly, that development is here to stay, they are more inclined to look out for their nameless new neighbors in addition to themselves, she said.
At another hearing a few weeks ago, Lancos said, residents adjacent to Stone Lake, a proposed 225-house development around a quarry in southern Howard County, also asked whether the playground set-aside in the plans was large enough.
"More recently, people are becoming more understanding of the fact that development will take place," Lancos said. "It used to be `I moved here and no one else can move in because I found my piece of heaven.' You don't feel that as much anymore."
To be sure, the residents of Cherrytree Farm, a 15-year-old subdivision of moderate-sized homes also at U.S. 29 and Route 216, would much rather not have anything built in the 42-acre slice of open land between them and U.S. 29. In the past year, they've had to contend with a new Food Lion store at the intersection.
As one woman leaving the Planning Board hearing exclaimed, "I never thought moving to Howard County would be such a fight! I almost expect them to put a nuclear reactor in!"
But the prevailing attitude among those most active in dealing with the Cherrytree Park developers, Frank M. Timlin and Winchester Homes, is more pragmatic. With southeastern Howard County in a building boom, Cherry tree Farm residents say, it was only a matter of time before bulldozers arrived in the adjacent plot, which is zoned for mixed-use development.
"When you buy next to an open field, you figure something is up," said Michael Custer, whose house will face the 10 detached single-family homes included in the developer's plans, along with 160 townhouses. "Obviously, the landowner has a right to do something with his property. I don't think it's fair for us to say, `You can't build something.'"
What neighbors can do, Custer and others said, is try to influence what gets built. In the past decade, Cherrytree Farm residents helped defeat two proposals to build up to 400 condominium units on the parcel, arguing that the plans would bring a transient population to a neighborhood of homeowners.
Many residents were relieved then, when Timlin and Winchester Homes took over the property five years ago and announced plans to build townhouses and detached houses, along with 10 acres of retail and office space, instead of condominiums. In subsequent negotiations, neighbors helped persuade the developers to lower the number of planned housing units from 250 to 170.
The developers' willingness to work with the neighbors is a big reason why many Cherrytree Farm residents are now thinking beyond their own interests in the project, said Greg Brown, president of the Cherrytree Farm Neighborhood Organization. By contrast, he said, the developers of the much larger and more controversial Maple Lawn Farms project, slated for a nearby Fulton turkey farm, have inspired less selflessness on the part of concerned neighbors.