A Frederick idyll idles

Impasse: More than 30 years after its inception, a planned community on Lake Linganore is mired in squabbles about funding for roads and utilities.

March 31, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

NEW MARKET - It was to be a mammoth planned community with a population the size of Annapolis'.

But 34 years after its conception, Lake Linganore at Eaglehead is more like Atlantis: It exists more in imagination than reality.

Like the mythical lost city, the Frederick County community is an outsized utopian dream: 3,700 rolling acres surrounding a man-made, 216-acre lake. It's close enough to Baltimore and Washington to appeal to thousands willing to commute for an hour to live near nature's charms: lakes, trails, foliage, honking geese.

At least, that was the idea.

But that was before the lake began to fill with silt, fissures appeared in roads, decades of squabbling between developers and the county about how to pay for improvements, and before the community became part of a larger debate about the county's explosive growth.

Today, there are many homes at Linganore, some overlooking forested ravines or set near the 13 miles of shoreline. The 2,000 units - less than a quarter of what was planned - include a five-level contemporary owned by developer Frank Ellis. The Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced creation, contoured into a hill, typifies the idea of Ellis and his predecessors of a development more interesting and environmentally friendly than many of its regimented-looking, mass-graded contemporaries.

These days, life at the development - where homes range from $165,000 to $500,000 or more - has a pioneer feel.

John Olinsky, a food sales executive, moved with his wife in 1994 from Frederick into a cedar-sided house with a deck surrounded by woods. He had been raised in New England and missed its rustic feel. "There is an aesthetic here," he says. "The geese fly over ... in the morning. There are deer and different birds flapping around."

But a tour of the community - with its unbuilt commercial centers, vacant home sites and deteriorated streets - shows that the vision of Ellis and his predecessors remains mostly unfulfilled.

Silt is mucking up Lake Linganore, the development's centerpiece and a prime water source for Frederick.

Then there is the bridge that was washed out during a storm in the 1970s and never replaced. If rebuilt, the span, over a creek, would provide much of Linganore with an important second access road. Without it, residents sometimes complain of being blocked from the community when the main road becomes impassable because of accidents or bad weather.

"Once I was stopped for 2 1/2 hours when there was an accident. There could be an emergency vehicle trying to come through," says resident Charlotte Dusold, who heads a local group pushing for improved and "environmentally conscious" roads.

"Coming soon! Eaglehead Drive and Bridge," reads a sign near the creek. But the bridge - and, in part, the future of the community - remain locked up in a series of disagreements with the county about money.

Like many dreams, Ellis' appears to have run smack into harsh reality.

First, there was the 1970s real estate slump and Wall Street downturn that fractured the market for buyers and helped send the first generation of developers into bankruptcy. Now there's the festering dispute between Ellis and the county about how to pay for the new bridge and accompanying road, how wide it should be, and how to finance water and sewer line extensions.

Ellis has proposed a special taxing district in which $16 million in bonds would be sold on the county's behalf to pay for the improvements, with homeowners assessed fees to repay the debt. A similar taxing district is being used to pay for other Eaglehead road and storm drain work.

But in 1999, the county rejected a plan of the size Ellis wanted. "We wanted him to build more out of his pocket," says County Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr.

The impasse with the county has slowed development of the site and placed Ellis' business operations in financial straits. He let go most his staff last year - about 20 people. "The dream, the desire is still there. ... This doesn't come without a price or obstacles," says Ellis, who entered the business as a Columbia real estate broker in 1975.

He says his vision is of "an absolutely gorgeous assemblage" of land with retail stores, offices, lakes, parks and pools. But complicating Ellis' efforts is the larger matter of the area's rapid growth: The county is concerned that future development not outstrip its ability to provide adequate schools and other services.

Frederick County's population swelled by about one-third during the 1990s to nearly 200,000. In recent years, the county has raised the impact fee for builders of new homes to $6,901 to ensure that there is enough public money to keep schools and roads from being overwhelmed. It costs about $10,000 more for water and sewer connections. Combined, this is one of the highest fees in the state.

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