Category Archives: Howard County

The Rural Side of Howard County

If you stick to the eastern side of Howard County, you won’t see anything rural about it. Aside from the swath of forest along the Patapsco River to the northeast, where the Patapsco Valley State Park straddles the county line, the area is well developed. Businesses and residential neighborhoods cluster along the Interstate 95 corridor stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., including Hanover, Elkridge, Jessup, Savage, and North Laurel. Two other major thoroughfares parallel I95 to the east: U.S. Route 1 and, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland Route 295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. These three key connectors funnel large amounts of traffic between the two cities and serve all points in between.

To the west of I95, one more key highway runs roughly north-south: U.S. 29, which connects Ellicott City with Columbia and  communities to the south, eventually passing through Silver Spring and into the heart of Washington. But one or two miles west of U.S. 29, the population begins to thin out, and you enter the rural side of Howard County. Here you’ll find less residential housing and more active farmland. This isn’t the Midwest, with its vast tracts of open fields and ten or fewer souls per square mile, but the farms are there.

According to Howard County’s Economic Development Authority, one-quarter of the county’s land is farmland, supporting agricultural sales in excess of $200 million annually. The U.S.D.A. offered a rather lower estimate in 2012, although the county may have been including sales other than crops and livestock, the only items the U.S.D.A considered. For example, horses are big business in Maryland, home of the Preakness Stakes, and Howard County has more horses per acre than any other county in the country. Boarding and training services surely bring in a lot of cash.

In some of these less developed areas, expensive housing has replaced farmland.  West Friendship (which readers of my novel True Death will recognize as the general area where Sandra Peller was killed in a hit-and-run) attracted a fair bit of this sort of development, as has Clarksville and some other areas. Other locales feature more ordinary housing, particularly those strung along the major north-south state routes: 32, 97, and 94. Fields and pastures fill in the gaps between these residential areas, as can readily be seen in satellite photos of the county. But those fields don’t go on for miles and miles. Before too long, you’ll hit another cluster of housing.

Way out in the northwest corner of the county, there is a curiosity. Here, the county lines intersect in a very strange way. The northern boundary of Howard County tracks westward along the south branch of the Patapsco river to its headwaters in an underground pond called Parr’s Spring. Parr’s Spring is, roughly speaking, the meeting point of four Maryland counties: Howard, Carroll, Frederick, and Montgomery. But Montgomery County’s boundary forms a spike thrusting northeastward toward the spring until it vanishes in a point a bit short of that spot. As a result, there are one or two properties that, according to the maps at any rate, straddle the three counties of Howard, Montgomery, and Frederick.

I’ve wondered for several years now how those people are billed for property taxes!

Clarksville, Maryland: A Wealthy Crossroads

The unincorporated community of Clarksville, Maryland figures in my Howard County Mysteries largely as a crossroads through which characters pass and once or twice meet for lunch.  This mirrors my own experience of it. I’ve occasionally stopped at the McDonald’s on Clarksville Pike (state route 108), and my bonsai club has sometimes held meetings at the River Hill Garden Center.

Those establishments are north of state route 32, much of which is now part of Columbia. Clarksville proper is largely south of route 32 and harbors some of the most expensive homes on the east coast. It’s among the wealthier parts of Howard County, which is itself the second wealthiest county in the United States.

According to the Trulia real estate heat map I sometimes consult when researching story elements, the highest concentration of high-priced homes in Maryland border Washington, D.C.: Bethesda, Potomac, and nearby areas. But Howard County has its share of pricey homes, too. The same heat map shows Clarksville in the midst of a great swath of fairly expensive real estate that arcs from West Friendship near Interstate 70 all the way down to the banks of the Patuxent River. If you browse satellite photos of the area or check real estate listings, you will readily spot multi-million dollar houses.

Yet this rolling land is something of a contradiction. In the midst of expensive housing developments, you’ll find undeveloped stands of woodland and fields actively being farmed. In fact, upscale housing mixes rather freely with nature. In 2004, a local resident even captured a coyote on camera!

All this hearkens back to Clarksville’s beginnings. Today a community of over 50,000, it is named for farmer William Clark, who originally owned much of the land here. His ancestor John R. Clark had immigrated from Ireland in 1790 and purchased John Howard’s blacksmith shop which had been one of the few African American operated blacksmith businesses in the country.

In 1869 the town was connected to Ellicott City by a ten mile privately owned turnpike, which later became part of route 108. Yet by the 1930’s, the population of Clarksville was still only 65, with its key industries being agriculture and limestone mining.

With the creation of Columbia and swelling population in the Interstate 95 corridor, things have changed markedly. Today, retail businesses sprawl near the junction of routes 108 and 32 and considerable farmland has fallen to development, making Clarksville a busy place in spite of its semi-rural setting. You will still find long roads meandering through hills and valleys, flanked by agricultural land and woods, but come around a bend and suddenly you’ll be passing great houses that most of us can’t afford.

And if you happen to stop for a bite at a fast food joint on the north side of route 32, you just might catch a glimpse of Rick Peller and Eric Dumas discussing a case over lunch.

Columbia, Maryland: A Man, a Plan, and Detectives

One might say that the heart of modern-day Howard County is the city of Columbia. Before the late 1960’s, it wasn’t. Now it’s the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, but then it was wooded country and farmland dotted with a few small crossroad communities. Then came Jim Rouse and his ideas for a planned city based not just on economic factors but on human values.

An unincorporated city and home to my characters Detective Sergeants Corina Montufar and Eric Dumas, Columbia consists of ten “villages” intended to provide a small-town atmosphere. Each village in turn consists of several neighborhoods built around a shopping center (the “village center”). Recreational facilities, a community center, and hiking and biking trails are also found in each.  Many street and place names are taken from art and literature, so when you run across the moniker “Hobbit’s Glen,” yes, that is indeed a tip of the hat to J. R. R. Tolkien.

The central village is the Town Center area, which includes the Columbia Mall and significant business presence. Next door to the mall, the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater plays host to a wide variety of concerts by big-name performers. Three manmade lakes and a variety of parks offer recreational opportunities. The Columbia Association, a citywide homeowners’ association, manages common-use facilities. It also dictates certain details of construction and the overall look and feel of the place. As a former colleagues who lived there once told me, “Yeah, it’s the taste police.”

A curious aspect of Columbia is how hidden many commercial venues are. The idea was to avoid the unsightly clutter of businesses that so often overtakes main thoroughfares in other cities. You can sometimes pass right by a store or restaurant without knowing it’s there. The Chinese restaurant frequented by Montufar and Dumas in my Howard County mysteries is loosely based on a real Chinese restaurant I once visited with some coworkers. The real place was larger and more elegant than the fictional one, which is basically a little storefront eatery, but they were both tucked away out of view.

Columbia is not a cheap place to live. The closer you get to Washington, D.C., the higher the prices rise. That’s why, when we moved to the area in 1995, we didn’t buy a house there. We had five school-age children at the time and needed a house big enough to corral them all. Nevertheless, from the get-go the idea behind Columbia was to provide a community where people of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic stripes could live and work and play in close proximity. To some degree, it did achieve that. You’ll find areas of larger and smaller homes, townhouses, and apartments in close proximity to each other, and people of all backgrounds rubbing elbows in the same shopping areas.

I don’t think of Columbia as a city, though. It has the suburban feel of the areas in which I grew up and have lived all my life. Rouse may have wanted to reinvent the city, but in many ways I think he more reinvented the suburbs, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in more questionable ways. I suspect most of the people who live there like it. I’ve only encountered one person who didn’t. Shortly before I moved there someone told me in an online conversation that he hated the place. Its development, he said, destroyed some of the best hunting lands in central Maryland.

But given its proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, development was probably the area’s fate anyway.