West Laurel is swimming in small-town spirit

By Jim Brocker
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 18, 2010

When West Laurel began to take shape in the 1960s, new residents moved into their homes and embraced a slice of suburban America. They watched their children grow up together, attend schools, play for sports teams and spend their summers at the West Laurel Swim Club. It was easy to develop strong ties to the neighbors and the neighborhood.

Several decades later, residents say, West Laurel has retained that sense of small-town spirit. The community, which straddles northern Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is now surrounded by major highways, including Interstate 95 but still has a sheltered, rural feel, as acres of parkland, several horse farms and open space dispel any notion of paved-over-suburbia. Longtime residents say the community hasn't changed much over the years, and they like it that way.

Larry Karpman, 45, said he is one of a dozen or so West Laurel natives who have chosen to move back into the neighborhood to raise their families. "To me, that says a lot," he said, adding that the community is very much the same place he remembers as a child. Neighborhood children walk to the West Laurel pool, located on Brooklyn Bridge Road within walking distance of ballfields, a playground and the community's civic building.

Karpman was one of more than 100 parents who braved a downpour on a summer Saturday to watch their youngsters perform at a swim meet. The pool serves as a social gathering spot for children and families, who forge friendships poolside.

Angie Holmes, 40, has enjoyed those relationships. She and her husband, David, were on hand to cheer on daughters Abbey, 12, and Natalie, 10, and they spend many hours at the pool in the summer and the nearby indoor Fairland Aquatics Center. "I smell like chlorine often," Angie Holmes said, adding that she has been involved since Abbey started taking lessons at 7.

The family has lived in West Laurel since 2002 and built a gate in the backyard fence so the children could play with the neighbors. "I love how tight-knit the kids and the parents are. They're always there for each other," she said.

Residents will also look after one another in times of need. When a fire destroyed a family's home last spring, community members, with the help of Bethany Community Church, made sure family members had a rental house within 48 hours and clothing and furnishings within a week.

Kristen Ruiz, 43, the outgoing president of Bond Mill Elementary School's parent-teacher organization, has benefited firsthand from the generosity of her neighbors. When Ruiz endured significant medical issues that included a long hospital stay, neighbors brought meals for several months to her husband and three children.

Ruiz, a 15-year-resident, has embraced the community in kind. In addition to her PTO duties at Bond Mill and two other schools, she started a drama club for Bond Mill students, now in its seventh year. "It gets kids to learn about theater, drama, team-building, interpersonal skills," she said. Her husband, Peter, is president of the Laurel Little League. "You have to give back to the community," she said.

Although the neighborhood also features clubs, Scout groups and a recreation association, the catalyst for residents' activism has been the West Laurel Civic Association, representing 1,800 homes. The association has been a political force on land-use issues, weighing in on projects including the Intercounty Connector and the Konterra mixed-use development. "We want to ensure development adjacent to West Laurel is complementary," said Melissa Daston, 55, a 20-year resident and the president of the association.

Because many original residents live in the community, the association is looking at ways to serve the senior population, Daston said, including a program that provides rides to doctor's appointments or other errands. "The goal is to find a way to let give senior citizens a way to age in place," she said.

Daston, who commutes to a federal government job in the District, has considered moving closer to work but says she enjoys what West Laurel offers. She loves spending time on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's land, a wooded tract that borders the Rocky Gorge Reservoir along the Patuxent River. With a permit, residents can enjoy hiking and horseback riding. "It's a wonderful place to melt away. You don't really know you're in suburbia," Daston said. A public boat launch off Supplee Lane offers direct access to the river.

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