Arson in a changing land

Growth: Even before the fires, cultures have clashed as suburban newcomers stream into largely rural Charles County.

December 08, 2004|By Greg Garland and Sarah Schaffer | Greg Garland and Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

INDIAN HEAD - To Jacque and Dawn Hightower, the Hunters Brooke subdivision seemed perfect - a community tucked away in a serene alcove of rural western Charles County, yet just a 45-minute commute from their jobs in Washington. And the $450,000 price tag for a five-bedroom house was a bargain compared with closer suburbs.

But plans to move into their dream home were disrupted when arson fires swept through the upscale development early Monday. And while the cause remains a mystery, it is no secret that many who live nearby were not happy to see suburban sprawl reach their community.

Environmentalists have said plans for more than 500 houses in Hunters Brooke and a sister development, Falcon Ridge, would destroy wetlands in the area. And some neighbors have worried about the impact of the population growth.

"Eighty years ago, I was related to just about everyone in the county. Now, I hardly know any of them," Charles H. Dudley, 80, a lifelong Charles County resident, said yesterday.

Sitting at the Keno counter at the local bait-and-tackle store, Dudley talked about the fires during his usual Tuesday visit to "shoot the breeze" and visit with friends.

His son, Charles W. Dudley, 51, said the newcomers - people he referred to as "imports" - are turning virtually all of Charles County into a bedroom community of Washington. The western part of the county has lost its small town atmosphere, where families had histories together and most people knew each other by name, he said.

Of the pricey new homes, his father said: "People down here don't have that kind of money."

At the Lunch Box Diner, Richard Sellner, 66, said the explosion of growth has him thinking about moving to Virginia or North Carolina. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't mind moving farther south," he said.

But new residents who are used to more congested environments were attracted to the area as a perfect blend of country calm and suburban convenience.

Rafael Nunez said that's why he and his family decided to move from Prince George's County to Hunters Brooke, which is east of Indian Head along Route 225.

"It's still not as developed as other areas, so I did like that," Nunez said.

With a population growth more than twice the average for the state, Charles County as a whole is suffering more than its share of growing pains. The county's population grew from 120,546 in 2000 to an estimated 133,000 last year, according to U.S. Census Department data.

That 10.4 percent growth compares with 4 percent for the state. The county ranked second, behind Calvert County, for population growth since 2003.

Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning, said that most of the migration to Charles County has come from people heading south from neighboring Prince George's.

About three-fourths of those moving are minorities, most of them African-Americans seeking better schools and housing choices, he said. That appears to be the case at Hunters Brooke, where many homebuyers are black professionals.

Historically, Charles County has been predominantly white. The 2000 census shows the population was 68.5 percent white at that time.

There have been some racial tensions in the county, according to local law enforcement officials.

Although he had no figures available yesterday, Capt. Joseph Montminy said police have seen an increase in "hate crimes" - mostly directed against African-Americans. But he attributed the jump to the department's new guidelines for tracking such crimes.

State investigators have stressed they do not know who set the fires at Hunters Brooke, nor the motive.

As of yesterday, more than 100 state, county and federal investigators were involved in the investigation. Officials reduced the tally of homes burned from 41 to 26. The damage estimate is being kept the same, at $10 million.

"Nothing's ruled in and nothing's ruled out," said FBI Special Agent Barry Maddox during an afternoon briefing. Maddox said that no group or person has come forward to take responsibility for the fires.

Patricia Stamper, one of the leaders of a local citizens group that fought to stop the housing development on environmental grounds, said FBI agents investigating the fires interviewed her at her house yesterday.

"They just said they were investigating all the people who lived in the area, and wanted to know if we knew anything, which of course we didn't," Stamper said.

The Mason Springs resident, 66, said she expected investigators would want to talk to everyone living in the immediate area.

"Everyone was nice and polite," she said.

Fire officials refused to comment on how the fires were started and would not say whether an accelerant was used. "Divulging that information, we'll lose a crucial investigative tool," said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

Taylor characterized the delicate process of evidence collection as "excruciatingly slow." Arson has been ruled the cause of seven fires. Taylor said he is not sure how long it would take to determine the cause of the fires at the 19 other damaged homes.

Jacque and Dawn Hightower say they were just looking for a quiet and comfortable place to raise their two children when they signed a contract in April to build a house in Hunters Brooke.

But instead of moving into their new home today, they were desperate for information about just how badly it was damaged.

"The only thing the builder was able to tell us was that our house was not one of the 12 that was completely destroyed," said Jacque Hightower, 32, a training supervisor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"This is our dream home, what we've been working for all our lives," he said.

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