As the seat of Harford County, Bel Air is a hub of government and related offices. But the town, incorporated in 1874, and its surrounding area are a blend of old and new, of quaint downtown shops and bustling mall businesses, of people pausing to greet friends and hustling to work and school.
"It's growing by leaps and bounds," said Donny Bromley, an antiques dealer who has lived in Bel Air since 1949. "It used to be rural."
It's become an area where people like raising families amid conveniences but away from the Interstate-95 corridor. Bel Air, which sprawls over two ZIP codes, is home to more than 47,000 residents, and the number of households jumped by about 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. Military base realignment and closure, known as BRAC, is expected to bring thousands of people to the area. The 35-square-mile incorporated town remains Bel Air's hub and center of a road network. Money magazine this year named the town one of its best places to live.
"It's a very warm place," said Marian Johnson, who moved to the Bel Air area with her husband 14 years ago.
Housing stock --Bel Air offers a variety of homes in price and style, said Salli Muscella, an agent with Advance Realty of Bel Air. "You really can't go wrong," she said. Close to Main Street sit houses that are historic, as well as older brick houses. Growth in the past two decades has brought larger new houses, townhouses and condos. A two-bedroom rental apartment can go for just less than $800 a month, Muscella said.
Kids and schools --Parents note the schools when asked about Bel Air, pointing to high achievement as evidenced in standardized testing, community support and parental involvement.
Among the elementary schools are Bel Air, Emmorton, Forest Lake, Homestead-Wakefield, Prospect Mill, Hickory and Ring Factory; middle schools are Bel Air, Patterson Mill and Southampton; high schools are Bel Air and C. Milton Wright. Other public schools include the John Archer School, the only public special education school in the county, and Harford Tech, a technical high school.
Dining in --For those dining in, the supermarkets have full-service stores in shopping centers.
Dining out --Diners can choose among mostly family-oriented restaurants, including national chains at shopping centers and along main roads. But local food places are holding their own; those downtown include Buontempo's, Little New York Deli and Shamrock Coffee.
Shopping --The intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 24 has shopping on every corner, including Harford Mall and Tollgate Marketplace. Downtown Bel Air, with its local shops, is undergoing a revitalization that, for now, is tough on traffic. When it's done, officials hope the multimillion-dollar streetscape will give Main Street an old-time charm and better traffic flow.
Crime --Residents say crime is low, an impression borne out by law enforcement officials. "Every year that I have been here for the last 17 years, our crime has been virtually unchanged as far as serious crimes," said Leo Matrangola, the Town of Bel Air's police chief, who noted that there's been one slaying in 23 years. "The county areas of Bel Air are really safe communities," said Sgt. Christina Presberry of the Harford County Sheriff's Office. "We've not really experienced serious crimes."
Nightlife --Residents take a short drive to Abingdon for the nearest movies. A Center for The Arts, showing a Christmas musical at the rehabbed Armory, is trying to attract more cultural arts to Bel Air. A 900-seat performance venue is coming -- a school board partnership with the town to accommodate larger crowds in the auditorium in the new Bel Air High School under construction. Liriodendron, a historic mansion, hosts cultural events and has an art gallery. Among nightspots with well-known Maryland names are Looney's Pub, from Canton, and the Greene Turtle, originally from Ocean City.
Recreation --The town maintains five neighborhood parks, each with amenities ranging from an amphitheater to playgrounds. Rockfield Park has a manor house that is the site of a wine festival. Outside the town are numerous trails and two county parks: Bynum Pond and Heavenly Waters, which, between them, offer an equestrian center, fishing, ball fields and more. The Emmorton Recreation and Tennis Center features indoor courts, ballet studio, batting cages and baseball skill tunnels.
BEL AIR BY THE NUMBERS
-- 21014 and 21015
Homes on the market
-- 244 (21014); 206 (21015) *
Average sale price
-- $289,122 (21014); $342,098 (21015) **
Average days on the market
-- 88 (21014); 117 (21015)
** *Figures supplied by Salli Muscella of Advance Realty of Bel Air.
**Information based on sales during the past 12 months, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.