Indian Head, Md., free of sprawl - for better and worse

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2011; 11:10 AM

Beauty and challenges surround Indian Head, located on the peninsula where the Potomac River meets Mattawoman Creek in southern Charles County - a place known in the 19th century as the Indian headlands.

"What makes Indian Head unique," said Randy Albright, a former vice mayor of the town, "is you can't drive through it - you drive to it for a reason."

The town turned 90 years old last year. "We're still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up," Mayor Ed Rice quipped about the just-over-one-square-mile community 30 minutes south of the Capital Beltway at the end of Maryland Route 210.

"The town exists because it's adjacent to the Navy base," said Rice, who retired from that base in 1995.

Now called Naval Support Facility Indian Head, the base began in 1890 and spurred the incorporation of Indian Head by 1920. Today, Navy representatives are included on town commissions and residents serve as liaisons to base organizations. "There's good cooperation between us," Rice said.

Lenny Wallace, a third-generation resident, said: "Indian Head was the county hub in the '60s. We had go-kart tracks, a movie theater, a bowling alley, shoe store, hardware store, and several car dealers and grocery stores." But that all changed when Waldorf, La Plata and the Bryans Road area began growing as commercial centers.

"Our commercial growth is a niche one that will only appeal to certain developers," Rice said in his first newsletter to residents in 2009.

Two dollar stores and a Chinese cafe recently moved in. And yet, even with about 4,000 residents in the town, many stores sit empty. The town lacks a library, grocery stores, medical facilities, and real estate and law offices.

"The sprawl has gone up the road," said Caroline Ghebelian, a 50-year resident who lives in one of the few houses overlooking the Potomac River, just outside the incorporated boundaries. "It's not as convenient, but it's a trade-off," said the avid birdwatcher and longtime volunteer at nearby Chapman State Park. Various entities are "working with the county to make the area more of a tourism destination," she said.

The Indian Head Rail Trail, which opened in 2008, is part of that plan. It is a linear park with a paved 13-mile path running from Indian Head to White Plains, along a former railroad to the base.

Mattawoman Creek is popular for fishing and kayaking. There is currently no public access to the Potomac River in town, but plans are underway for a 1,500-foot boardwalk along the bank.

Early residents came for the base, said Century 21 real estate agent Norma Rice (no relation to the mayor). "Many come here now for the lifestyle and lower prices," she said.

Indian Head's housing offers a hodgepodge of choices - including frame 1920s farmhouses and bungalows, 1950s and '60s ramblers, and spiffy new townhouses and single-family homes constructed in the past 10 years.

"Property assessments throughout Indian Head dropped by about 30 percent in the last go-around," Ryan Hicks, the town manager, said. Of the 46 homes recently on the market in town, nine were priced under $100,000 and 27 were under $300,000, with more than a few needing considerable TLC.

While town officials wrestle with how to draw more businesses to Indian Head, community events go on. The Village Green, a block of open space at the southern end of town, is the hub of community activities such as Fourth of July fireworks and summer sing-alongs. Halloween finds children going trunk to trunk rather than door to door - walking the perimeter of the green, collecting treats from dozens of residents' car trunks.

On National Night Out, an anti-crime event held in August, "draw the sheriff" and "count the jellybeans" contests are popular. The volunteer fire department, active since 1948, sponsors numerous events, including drive-through chicken dinners several times a year.

"Whatever hometown feel a community can have, we're trying to preserve it," said Karen Lindquist-Williams, the town's community activities director.

Cynthia Simmons, now retired from Verizon, said she moved to Indian Head in 1989 because "I'm an Air Force brat, so what I wanted for my children [then 6 and 10] was lifelong friends."

She also found her niche as a program assistant for the senior center, housed in the 1920 former post office. Approximately 130 registered seniors take part in activities generated by homespun creativity. January's pirate theme prompted a "wisdom jar," based on the message-in-a-bottle idea. "We collected wisdom from our seniors," Simmons said, "to share their life's lessons with our elementary-school children." Some messages were very short, such as "Care" and "Be grateful," while others were longer and conversational.

During high school, Geralyn Adams and her friends were eagerly anticipating lives beyond the boundaries of their tiny home town. But last month, while home from college for winter break, Adams, 19, was enjoying the bike trail and some creekside quiet. "You don't realize the worth of living here until you get older," she said.

Seven years ago, as early home buyers in a new development on formerly wooded property, Albright recalled how his family didn't receive the warmest of welcomes. "We were seen as tearing up their area," said his wife, Cindy. "It was an understandable reaction." The couple dived into volunteering, "doing whatever needed to be done," said Randy.

Two years later, he was elected vice mayor. Cindy became a cheerful presence behind the counter at CaloJero's, a local deli, where she greets many lunchtime customers by name. "You get close to people here . . . they confide in you," she said.

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