It used to be that a drive over the river and through the woods brought a person to grandmother's house. Grandmother's house, of course, was a white, many-porched affair, surrounded by orchards and flowers smack in the middle of the country.
Nowadays, the country seems to be shrinking, and while the rivers are still running, there are fewer trees. Grandma's house probably has a 7-11 parked next to it with a drug store across the street.
Hodge-podge growth that has produced such anomalies has been a plague in many cities and surburban towns. A zoning regulation will be changed, and overnight a deluge of development will occur, leaving everyone wondering how his residental street suddenly became the local hamburger haven.
Prince George's County officials, wrestling with the problems of development in semi-rural areas of the county, watch closely as developers bring projects before them that could bring as many as 6,000 people into a new area. They make decisions that could change the value of a piece of land four-fold, up or down.
And they listen to their citizens - a job they say is the most important and difficult task of all. After all, the taxpayers define the character of a community. They help set a direction for projected growth.
Over the past few months citizens of the county seat have been frank in telling council members and planners what they think, as the council discusses growth and zoning in the Upper Marlboro and lower Patuxent area.
The 118 square miles of tobacco fields, dense woods, rolling hills and swamp land west of the Patuxent River are ripe for the first stages of development. Higher taxes are forcing large landowners to break down their land into smaller tracts, parceling them out bit by bit for development. The reduced labor force, the landowners say, has turned a few farmers away from cultivation and into the willing arms of developers who want to put townhouses all over their cornfields.
A drive south out of Upper Marlboro down Croom Station Road now offers the sweet smell of dense forests that shelter bluebirds and grouse. Pleasant Hill, the home of the William Sasscer Hill family, lies off to the right. A long road bordered with wisteria leads up to the grand old red brick house. Judge Charles C. Marbury's acreage is off in the other direction. His big white house sits at the corner of Crain Highway and Old Marlboro Pike.
On Sasscer name is emblazoned on mailboxes by neat brick houses. A few horses, a grape arbor, an old barn line the country dirt road. The area is rural with its own landed gentry - families like Clagett and Sasscer that go back hundreds of years.
At the same time, it's fertile ground for the seeds of 20th century boomstyle development. Large tracts of land in the Marlboro area have been purchased with an eye toward high density development.
In the late 60s three businessmen from Montgomery County bought 250 acres of land from Mrs. William Sasscer Hill Jr. Three others bought 250 acres adjoining the Hill land from Frederick Sasscer II.
In 1971 these businessmen - Lee Wilder, Carl Goldberg, Robert Kent, William Kaplan, Herman Glazer, and David Stearman - formed a partnership called the Sasscer-Hill Joint Venture. The partnership decided to build a community of 1,341 "dwelling units" - 631 single family houses and 710 townhouses. They invested $1 million in planning and purchasing land for the development that would be in the heartland of that rural area - nextto the Hill and Sasscer family homes, across the street from Judge Marbury, down the road from Hal C.B. Clagett's 450 acres and adjoining Fendall Clagett's 200 acres.
The citizens went crazy. "We want to keep Marlboro country," said Dorothy Troutman at a public hearing a few weeks ago. Troutman lives near the 504-acre Sasscer-Hill tract on what was once Clagett land on Osbourne Road.
Hal Clagett, whose family has owned land in the Marlboro area for 10 generations, became an outspoken opponent to the Sasscer-Hill development.
Clagett wants land in that area of the county to stay agricultural or, if it has to be developed, divided into no less than two-acre lots. "I keep my land, not that it is a trust or obligation, but because it is a matter of some pride to me to continue the operation of that land.
"My identity as a lawyer is well known - my identity as a farmer is not. As a farmer, life begins at 6 in the mornings. For every hour in the court room, I have spent six hours in the field.
"Fifty years ago we had 40,000 people in this county, today we have 80,000. The county is made up of the strength and character of the people who live and work in Prince George's. And people owning their own acreage, even in two-acre lots, that type of person who is going to come in and buy is more attuned to my way of living than the one wiht a rowhouse and a patio," Clagett said.
Back north of the town of Upper Marlboro, more seeds for development are sown. But this time, some local folks are invloved.
Other Sasscers, Lansdale G. Sasscer Jr. and his mother and two sisters, are developing their own property - 196 acres of semi-farm, semi-wooded land. The plan, which is still in a talking stage with the county planning staff, calls for high rise-elevator units, single family houses and townhouses. Construction could begin as soon as three years from now.
Sasscer said his sisters also "have a tract west of town divided by Rte. 4. We do not have an application for rezoning on that property, but that property is ready for development. I hope to move forward on that soon."
Sasser, unlike his law partner and ex-brother-in-law Hal Clagett, is a "growth man." "I am for growth. I'd like to see the southern part of the county grow to its real potential."
Clagett concedes that development above Rte. 4 - the Sasscer land and adjacent Levine property to the north, Real Estate Central to the near future into a sizable county seat."
But that development does not include Sasscer-Hill as far as Clagett and others concerned. "We need the agricultural land as much as we need density development, not just for open space, but for food stuffs to keep all of us energetic and progressive," Clagett said.
After public hearings on the rezoning amendments to the Upper Marlboro Sectional Map Amendment, the council denied through straw votes, a rezoning application for Sasscer-Hill. Instead, it zoned the land rural-agricultural, which allows farming or a munimum lot size of two acres if developed. In general, it downzoned, or reduced the density levels, throughout the whole Upper Marlboro planning area, cutting in half its potential population.
Aaron Handleman, one of the attorneys for the Sasscer-Hill Joint Venture, thinks local opposition was the major factor in denying the rezoning. "We have been planning the project with the citizens in mind all along. We were going to plant shrubbery in front of Judge Marbury's property. There was going to be no building on the surrounding five acres of the Hill house and Sasscer property.
"But the opposition was obviously well-orchestrated," Handleman said. "There was some political clout used. Clagett, Sasscer, Marbury-persons whose names meansomething in this county - were opposed. These families have been there for 600 years. You get the feeling that they escaped the city life and now have a vested interest in come out here. This is my land - it's a selfish kind of thing."
Clagett responds, "One of my difficulties has been that in your mind and in other minds I have acreate and I want to selfishly hold onto it. Rather I am fortunate enough to have 450 acres. What I have gotten from 450 acres I could have gotten from two acres.
"People who would occupy rowhouses would depend on public playgrounds, public areas constant regimentation with a little league this and a little league that. It's an economic thing. If a person owns a two or later a riding horse or hunter, and some room around, he is independent," Clagett said of the people he would like to see share his Marlboro.
Handleman questions the ultimate power of citizens like Clagett. "What this means is that the citizens have an absolute right over any change in the county. So-called progress might be in big trouble because it is such an emotional issue."
Clagett, the consummate farmer said, "After all, if we took all the land out of cultivation and pter all, if we took all the land out of cultication and put it into Marlton and Sasscer-Hill it would be a helluva note. How would we feed people?"