River Hill is a gem, and, yes, it's costly

NEIGHBORHOOD PROFILE

Columbia's last village beckons to those who don't flinch at 350K prices

April 27, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Situated in the westernmost part of Columbia, River Hill Village is a picturesque community with hundreds of acres of wooded areas, beautifully landscaped homes and retail and shopping centers offering convenience for busy families.

It also is one of the priciest spots in the Baltimore metropolitan area - average sales prices were more than $355,000 during the past 12 months in part because of the Howard County school system's reputation. And the village is working to change its image as an exclusive area for the rich that offers little diversity in terms of housing and cultures.

Half of River Hill's 1,745 acres are dedicated to open space, including the 900 acres of the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

Along Route 108, in the heart of the community, is a village center complete with a grocery store, fine dining, fast food and various retail outlets.

Francis and Joan Kelso, empty-nesters who raised four daughters in the nearby Village of Wilde Lake, moved to Columbia in 1967 in search of a community more diverse than the one in which they lived in Anne Arundel County.

After their daughters left home in 1998, the Kelsos downsized from their five-bedroom home to a town home in River Hill, Columbia's 10th and newest village in Howard County.

Come July, the couple will move again - in River Hill.

This time, they have purchased a $300,000 condominium built by Bozzuto Homes near the village center. The Kelsos said they are attracted by River Hill's amenities, including convenient shopping and, most importantly, proximity to their daughters and grandchildren who live in the area. "There's a shopping center right across the street [from their new home], walking paths, and it's nice and quiet," Francis Kelso said.

"I enjoy the little hometown parade, and it only takes five or 10 minutes to get to the mall," added Joan Kelso.

James Rouse, Columbia's visionary father, conceived River Hill during the mid-1960s along with its nine sister villages - Town Center, Owen Brown, Hickory Ridge, Wilde Lake, Dorsey's Search, Long Reach, Kings Contrivance, Harper's Choice and Oakland Mills.

According to Columbia's archives, Rouse had four basic goals: Build a city that met the basic needs of its people, including housing, jobs and recreation; show respect for the land by setting aside open space for playgrounds, parks and nature trails; contribute to the improvement of mankind; and make a profit.

Located halfway between Baltimore and Washington, Columbia's villages are home to about 95,000 people.

River Hill was incorporated Aug. 13, 1991. Its name dates to a plantation that reportedly was one of the first in Maryland to free its slaves, according to Columbia's archives.

A little over 6,000 residents call River Hill home, said Susan Smith, who has served as village manager for the past two years. The village comprises approximately 2,100 residential units, including 1,649 single-family detached homes, 232 town homes and 215 condominiums.

On any given day in the village, young parents push strollers while children play basketball amid sun-dappled trees and freshly clipped grass. Beautifully manicured homes sit on streets such as Autumn Wind Circle and Summer Sky Path, their names drawn from the poetry of Walt Whitman and James Whitcomb Riley, respectively.

River Hill's two neighborhoods, Pheasant Ridge and Pointer's Run, feature single-family-detached units occupied primarily by families with young children and town homes for those requiring less space.

New condominiums on Route 108 near the village center are also being erected by Bozzuto Homes and Beazer Homes. These are the last residential parcels in River Hill.

Schools a selling point

The reputation of the Howard County schools keeps properties selling briskly in this area, said Norma Judd, sales manager for Long & Foster's Columbia Midtown Office.

"River Hill is extremely popular because it's the last village in Columbia," Judd said. "It has over 50 percent of open space ... and it's got some of the newer homes."

For nine of the past 11 years, the county has led the state in school performance testing. And, about 80 percent of Howard County's students attend college, according to the school district's Web site.

Howard County homes sold for an average price of $270,980 in March, a 14.5 percent increase over March 2002, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the listing service used by agents and brokers.

In River Hill, where most of the county's newer homes have been constructed, the prices were higher. During the past 12 months, homes sold for an average of $355,676.

Prices such as these have helped foster criticism of River Hill and its lack of diversity in terms of racial balance, public housing and the ability of families at the lower end of the economic scale to afford to live here.

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