Change spreads across Howard

People: In the past decade, an expanding population has altered the county's landscape.

March 20, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Growth transformed Howard County through and through in the 1990s, adding enough people to fill a football stadium - in areas from suburban Columbia to the traditionally rural west.

Census workers counted 247,842 residents last year, an increase of more than 60,500 from 1990. Although it is the state's second-smallest county as measured in square miles, Howard ranks fifth in population.

It's more diverse than it was 10 years ago, too: More than a fourth of the county's residents are minorities. Their numbers doubled to 67,800, fueled by growth in the African-American, Asian and Hispanic communities.

Howard's growth rate has slowed, compared to earlier decades. But the impact of 32 percent more people in the county's boundaries has been swift.

In the past 10 years, builders have put up 21,500 homes, 22 schools and four of the library's five branches. At Howard County General Hospital, where an average of eight babies are born every day, the number of emergency visits increased 75 percent - and at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glenwood, the number of families quadrupled.

Thousands of acres of farmland disappeared to make way for Howard's new arrivals, and thousands more cars rumble across the local byways and highways.

The county's diversified demographics have also brought more ethnic stores, Korean churches, bilingual police officers and immigrant services. In the public school system, the English for Speakers of Other Languages program serves 1,300 children - up from 346 in 1990.

"We've had a sense of the changing face of the county probably more than anybody else," said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan, noting that school documents have been translated into Korean, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and up to eight other languages.

Howard, which has grown at one of the fastest rates in Maryland for decades, was third in the state this year - edged out by Calvert and Worcester counties. In the '90s Howard attracted nearly as many people as it did the decade before, when the population grew by about 69,000 people, a 58 percent jump.

Officials and residents attribute Howard County's popularity to its prime real estate - between Baltimore and Washington - and its well-thought-of public schools. But in 15 to 20 years, planners estimate, land that can be developed will be developed.

"The county's still growing, but it's slowing down as it gets closer to build-out," Jeff Bronow, chief of the planning department's research division, said yesterday.

"The big change is us running out of business," agreed Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. "By the time the next census comes out, we'll be very near the end of the line."

Rutter believes the growth has been well-orchestrated, but changes in the landscape have dismayed some residents. In 1950, the county was still a sleepy farm community of 23,100.

"I think a lot of us knew that it would develop because of the location, but I don't think any of us could have predicted a quarter of a million by 2001," said Charles Feaga, 68, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau and a lifelong resident.

Although growth touched all corners of the county in the '90s, more than 80 percent of the homes went up in the east - which has less restrictive zoning regulations than rural western Howard.

Elkridge, for instance, grew 67 percent. Census workers counted 22,000 residents last year.

Developments are fewer and farther between in western Howard, but the growth still surprised some residents, who were used to rolling farmland and not a whole lot else.

In tiny Dayton, houses have sprung up amid fields of corn and hay. The census counted 550 homes in 1990; now, according to post office records, there are 780.

"What I didn't expect is how this area around me would grow up," said Rebecca Moy, who moved to Dayton in 1984.

The community still feels like a small town, she said. Along with a handful of businesses and a postage-stamp-sized post office, Dayton has only one intersection with four-way stop signs.

In towns throughout western Howard, new residents know perhaps better than anyone that more changes are coming. What brought them, they figure, will bring others.

"We all came from areas where the growth has taken over," said Pam McCue, who moved to a Lisbon subdivision about two years ago from Elkridge. "We know the growth is going to catch up with us one day."

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