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!