Community identity reaches a crossroads

Highland: Faced with the certainty of development down the road, residents of the town are working hard to stay in the driver's seat.

December 05, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Many communities in Howard County are represented by a dot on a map but have little else to distinguish their borders.

Clarksville has a row of stoplights and a commercial strip, but it blends into the outskirts of Columbia. Daisy is mostly a post office address in the western part of the county. And few can identify the borders of an eastern county crossroads called Dorsey.

"There were lots of little crossroads" in the county, said Howard historian Joetta M. Cramm. "Most of them are hard to identify now," she said, naming West Friendship, Alpha and Annapolis Junction, among others. "They've ceased to function because their function is gone."

But Highland is one southern Howard crossroads community that is fighting to keep itself vital and maintain a small-town identity.

The locale, centered on the four corners at Routes 216 and 108, has maintained locally owned businesses -- a saddlery, a home decor shop and a family-owned market dating to 1917.

The community, led by the Greater Highland Crossroads Association, is researching the town's history, beautifying the area with signs and holiday decorations and weighing in on every aspect of development at the crossroads, from architectural style to the location of trash bins.

Towns such as Ellicott City, Elkridge (both of which have designated historic districts) and Savage have active preservation efforts and significant populations. But among the small western crossroads, "I don't know of any community that has worked the way that Highland has," Cramm said.

Crossroads towns throughout Maryland have ceased to be, as rail lines have closed and larger thoroughfares have taken traffic away from smaller ones, said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist.

Others on the periphery of urban centers tend to evolve into what are called edge cities, with mostly modern suburban characteristics, he said. Only a few will build a new identity as an antiques center, for example, or a destination for day-trippers.

The Highland association was established when residents banded together in spring 2002 to successfully oppose the building of a 12,000-square-foot funeral home on one of the community's four corners.

It is not unusual in Howard for communities to oppose development projects, but the Highland association kept its momentum going. It attracted about 100 families and businesses as dues-paying members and formed committees to outline the community's plans for the future.

The group's organization and persistence have earned it a place at the table with developers and county representatives.

"Development of this corner was inevitable," said association President Dan O'Leary. "If we didn't find some leverage and means to influence it, we'd better start looking for another place to live."

The association's approach is to work with builders and business owners during planning stages for their projects. Then builders can take the backing of the community with them when projects go to the county for variances or other approvals, O'Leary said.

When Souder Builders was denied permission for the funeral home, the company started talking to the association about plans to build a restaurant, shops and three townhouse-style office buildings on the northeast corner of the intersection.

The participants have agreed on Shaker-style architecture, wood siding, landscape and fence buffers between the property and residential neighbors and low lighting attached to the building.

Donald Souder, owner of the building company, said his company is more concerned with getting the new buildings started than having the final say on what type of siding is used.

Mina Hilsenrath, chief of the county's division of environmental and community planning, has been impressed with the Highland approach.

"One of the things that is also special about the group is it's really a grass-roots effort," she said. But the association hasn't stopped with development issues. One local family put up holiday decorations to make the area more festive. A committee is putting together an oral history of the town by interviewing longtime residents.

Last month, the association enlisted the help of a Boy Scout troop to post signs letting visitors know they were entering a community. The white signs with red trim proclaim: "Highland, Maryland. circa 1759. Welcome."

That date is the earliest reference in the Maryland Archives, said Susan Scheidt, chairwoman of the association's historic district committee. A license was granted to a tavern in Highland in that year.

The town also boasts being the birthplace of Dr. Charles Alexander Warfield, a Colonial patriot whose descendants and relatives were influential in the history of the county and the state.

"I think we just didn't have a clue about our history," Scheidt said. "It's fun to re-establish it."

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