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At Strathmore at Bel Pre, ‘close-knit’ isn’t just a cliche

By Jim Brocker,

Take a turn down Rippling Brook Drive in the Strathmore at Bel Pre neighborhood and it isn’t hard to imagine what life was like there nearly 40 years ago, when families began to move into the planned community in Montgomery County.

You’ll still see the half-dozen home styles of the Levitt and Sons development, from one-­story ranchers to two-story Dutch Colonials. The elementary schools are still within walking distance, and the hub of the community, the swim and racket club, remains a fixture for residents.

What has also endured over the years is a community spirit: Residents not only know their neighbors but also enjoy spending time with them. Take the Bearman and Wesley families, next-door neighbors with four children each. With summers at the pool and children of all ages in school, it wasn’t hard to find common ground.

“We love the Wesleys,” said Mike Bearman, 37, recalling that when their youngest child, now 7, was born, the Wesleys looked after the other children. “And their oldest boy helped me build a treehouse in the back yard.”

Ellen Wesley, 52, said she grew up in a caring neighborhood in Prince George’s County and wanted her children to experience that feeling. “You can count on the people here,” she said. “If something happens, there are 10 people I can call.”

Wesley has been an advocate for the local schools, and she and her husband, Louis, 61, have watched their children progress through the public schools that serve the neighborhood. The three oldest have been part of the well-regarded Leadership Training Institute program at John F. Kennedy High School.

But the Wesleys, like many residents, point to the pool as the key to the neighborhood. When the community was founded, the pool was designed to be the centerpiece, and residents are required to pay an annual $225 fee, which gives them use of the facilities, including the tennis courts, playground and picnic area.

Nancy Bechtol, president of the Strathmore Bel Pre Civic Association, says the pool “has a lot to do with keeping the neighborhood a neighborhood,” noting that even though local children attend a host of public and private schools, the pool serves to unify the youngsters. The civic association does its part with a Fourth of July parade that ends with a picnic at the pool. Children dress up in patriotic gear, many pedaling their decorated bicycles in what Bechtol called “just an adorable tradition.”

Bechtol, 52, whose association represents more than 700 families, also sent her children to the local schools, and she and her husband, Ted, 58, have remained in the community, commuting to their jobs as federal workers in the District via the nearby Glenmont Metro station. A Montgomery County Ride On bus carries Nancy Bechtol home from the station. Some residents use Metro’s Twinbrook stop in Rockville.

Two other civic activists, Lilla and Bill Hammond, have lived in Strathmore at Bel Pre since 1984 and quickly got involved with the community. The neighborhood is divided by parkland that includes the Matthew Henson Trail, so not all of the streets connect. To try to build unity on the “new side” of the development, accessed from Hathaway Drive, the Hammonds sponsored neighborhood get-togethers. Lilla Hammond, 64, a former president of the civic association, says she has continued to try to bring residents together. The association has a Web site, maintained by Bill, 68, an electronic mailing list and a newsletter, the Bugle, which has been distributed for more than 40 years. “There are a number of us who really reach out, really want people to feel welcome,” Lilla Hammond said. “Life’s too short. I just try to be friendly.”

The association has taken an active role in community and county affairs, and it meets regularly to discuss issues including nearby developments, speeding and crime. The association weighs in on projects, such as the construction of the Parker Farm subdivision and the nearby Midcounty Recreation Center, and serves as a go-to organization for the residents. “When people have problems, they come to us,” Lilla Hammond said.

The construction of the Matthew Henson Trail, on parkland once envisioned for the region’s Outer Beltway, was controversial. The association and some environmentalists opposed the project, but it went forward in 2007, and some residents say the trail is now a positive addition. Bearman says his family, wife Dana, 39, and their children, ages 7 to 14, love to go on walks and bicycle rides along the hard-surface trail.

Paulette Ladas, a resident for nearly 20 years and an agent for Re/Max Realty Centre, is also a board member of the Bel Pre Recreational Association, which operates the pool and pavilion. Ladas said lots are from one-third to one-half acre, square footage ranges from 1,800 to 2,700, and prices run between $400,000 and $600,000. The ranchers can be in demand, particularly for older residents or the disabled seeking one-story living, Ladas said.

Those prices are quite different from those offered by Levitt back in 1968 and 1969, when the builder, known for developing suburban communities across the nation, began offering homes in Strathmore at Bel Pre. Prices for the Judson, a rancher, started at $37,900, according to a document posted on the Web site LevittownBeyond.com, which chronicles the history of Levitt communities. The high-end model, the Embassy, went for $49,900.

The original Levitt houses remain in use today, with many of the original homeowners still living in them. Maurice Potosky and his wife, Charlotte, moved to a new house in Strathmore at Bel Pre in 1972 after living in one of Levitt’s largest developments, in Levittown, Pa. The Cape Cod that the Potoskys purchased in Maryland was a model they had admired in Levittown and “had aspired” to own, Maurice Potosky, now 81, recalled. They moved into the two-story, five-bedroom, three-bathroom house with their four children. The model, the Fairfield, cost about $40,000, he said.

Over the years, the Potoskys improved the house, including adding a room where there was once an attic, where Maurice has created a library. They’ve stayed at Strathmore at Bel Pre because they can keep in touch with their friends, some who still live in the neighborhood and some who have moved to nearby Leisure World, a retirement community.

The Potoskys are leaders of the community’s Over 50 Club, designed to provide a social outlet for the older residents. The club sponsors theater outings and holds potluck meals during the warmer months at the neighborhood pool. “We keep an eye out for each other,” Maurice Potosky said, “and keep a sense of community going.”

Some of those older residents have gone out of their way to keep in touch. Brenda Henry’s daughters are grown, but she still serves on the recreation board. “I believe the community is where I live, and it should be kept to the highest standards,” said Henry, 62.

Brocker is a freelance writer.

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