A rapid rise for Howard County

Changes: Over the past 40 years, top-ranked schools and an easy commute have drawn young, affluent residents.

March 23, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Most people say their community is the best place to live. Howard County residents have statistics to back up their claim.

Howard ranks at the top of the state - or near the top - for everything from public school performance to income to house sizes. Census 2000 workers found that half the adults here have college degrees, a demographic only seven counties in the nation can beat. The price for houses and townhouses has spiraled up to an average of more than $250,000 as people fight to get in.

Half the county's households make more than $74,100 a year, one of the highest median salaries in the nation. That means most residents have the means to enjoy themselves, which might explain why Howard has more horses per square mile than any other county in Maryland, even as development closes in.

"There's much more compelling arguments to live here than anywhere else in the region - or anywhere else in the world," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the local Economic Development Authority, who has had maps made to show Howard County at the center of the universe.

But it is a suburb of superlatives with less-than-sterling statistics, too. Compared with the rest of the state, Howard has the highest portion of workers who commute elsewhere (62 percent), and many who work here cannot afford to live here. People who do not have any home at all are increasingly out of luck: The nonprofit-run homeless shelter's 32 beds in Columbia are always full, and people always have to be turned away.

In every place shelter officials have looked to expand, neighbors reacted with an emphatic "not in my back yard."

"We've got a wonderful place here; I think we need to be careful that we don't let our affluence blind us to the other issues," said Lynne Nemeth, a Columbia resident active in the nonprofit community. "You know, there are 12 [thousand] to 15,000 people without health insurance in this county, for example. There's a growing number of immigrants coming in who need assistance. There are people who live in poverty in this county. I think the challenge to us being so affluent and being so highly educated is to not overlook that."

Once part of Anne Arundel County, Howard split off in 1851 because its residents were sick of the long ride to Annapolis. It is what it is today partly by design - one of the most intricately planned communities in the nation sits in the heart of the county - and partly by the serendipity of being squeezed between Baltimore and the nation's capital. Interstate 95, prime artery of the East Coast, runs through it.

In the past 40 years, Howard has been transformed from a quiet farm community of 36,000 into a suburb of 250,000. That is one of the fastest growth rates in Maryland, packed into the state's second-smallest county as measured in square miles.

Columbia, the innovative "new town" laid out near the start of that boom, is the equivalent of the state's second-largest city (it just happens to be unincorporated, like every other place in Howard). Developed by the Rouse Co. as a place for all races at a time when racial harmony was in short supply, Columbia brought a diverse population and a substantial commercial tax base - tucked around more than 5,000 acres of open space.

"If Columbia has brought anything to the county, I think it is the fact of always questioning and thinking about what we need tomorrow before tomorrow comes," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's executive vice president of development. "The Columbia plan was a balanced plan."

Bill Woodcock, immediate past president of the Howard County Citizens Association, is amazed by the change in his lifelong home. The 35-year-old geriatric research administrator, who grew up in Elkridge, said everybody knew everybody else when he was a child. By the time he graduated from college, the population had soared.

"It was like moving away from home without ever having to move away," he said.

That feeling has alienated some Howard countians who feel the area has been overdeveloped. Every week, people trek to the county seat in Ellicott City to oppose a subdivision, plead against a variance or fight a rezoning - including 200 residents who swamped hearings recently about townhouses proposed for their community.

Woodcock has had concerns about development, but he likes the way Howard has matured. Farmers are still hanging on, tending fields in the rural west, he points out, and 18,800 acres of that farmland is preserved.

New replaces old more often than not, and a local preservation group is so alarmed by the speed of development that in 2001 it started an annual top-10 list of endangered historic places. But landmarks of Howard's past still remain.

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