At about 6:30 each weekday morning, Betsy Hodge wheels her Chevette onto U.S. 301 just outside of St. Charles and begins a 70-minute drive north to her job at the National Wildlife Federation in the District.
About half of St. Charles' 12,000 workers make the same commute. Hodge says living in St. Charles, 25 miles south of the Capitol, is worth her battle with traffic.
"I love Southern Maryland," she said. "It reminds me of southern England, with its rolling hills and the Patuxent River's ribbons of blue."
For a closeness to rural life, lower taxes, cheaper homes and a host of other reasons, Hodge and her family and thousands of others have moved to St. Charles since the development was begun 10 years ago where swamps and stands of gum, oak and pine trees stood.
The community, now about a quarter developed, is home to nearly 18,000 persons, and the developer envisions a population of 79,000 by shortly after the turn of the century. About 500 families lived there in an earlier subdivision when St. Charles was born and are now included in the community.
In the past decade, St. Charles has become another bedroom community of Washington that is slightly richer and younger than the rest of Charles County. Many residents, families just starting out, own their first homes.
St. Charles also has accelerated the mostly rural county's urban growth, accounting for about half of it since 1970; has suffered the growing pains, such as crime and overcrowded schools, of any community; has been set back by economic slumps; and has encountered resentment from longtime county residents.
The new community, between Waldorf and La Plata, is called a planner's dream. The nearly 80,000 residents are to live in five villages -- one is near completion and a second is under construction -- comprising more than 24,000 apartments, single-family houses, town houses and condominiums on about 9,000 acres.
Each village generally will follow the design of the first: four neighborhoods, each with its own small shopping center; a circling main road with branching cul-de-sacs; a convenience store; and a recreation center.
St. Charles was the second of 13 developments approved for federal loan guarantees under the 1968 New Communities Act. The idea was to repeat the self-contained communities, with stores, industry, schools, parks and homes, demonstrated by such privately financed new towns as Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., begun in the early 1960s.
St. Charles received a loan guarantee for $37.25 million and federal grants of $25 million to build roads, sewers and other public facilities, said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But St. Charles got a cool reception from Charles County officials and residents, who feared what an urban development would do to a county where the population remained stable at 24,000 between 1790 and 1950 before doubling by 1970.
They particularly opposed targeting 80 percent of St. Charles' housing for families earning less than $10,000 a year and questioned whether the development would pay its own way.
"When someone says they plan to build a new community of 70,000 to 80,000 persons in a county then only 40,000, you have fears," said James C. Simpson, a county commissioner from 1970 to 1974 and now a state senator from the county.
As the county debated whether to grant special zoning to St. Charles' developer, St. Charles Associates, a subsidiary of the Puerto Rico-based Interstate General Corp., Simpson declared: "I have no faith in HUD or in the developer. It's going to be the Missouri theory: show me."
Now, Simpson said, he has been shown. "What they've done since '72 has been a very good job. They did what they said they would do. That's why I was skeptical back in '72. I didn't know them. We didn't have something to hang a hat on."
But he said controls over St. Charles' development exercised by the county were key factors in how the community turned out.
He said officials objected to the low-income plan because the demand for county services--schools, police, water, sewerage--"would have gone out of sight."
HUD revised the low-income target to about 25 percent. More than 1,200 low-income families now live in St. Charles.
County officials also dictated that St. Charles pay its way, requiring annual financial reports. If St. Charles proved to be too costly for the county, the county reserved the right to stop issuing building permits--a step that has not been taken. Since 1976, costs sometimes have exceeded revenues.
Charles E. Stuart, president of St. Charles Associates, insisted the project does pay its way. He said the county wrongly does not credit St. Charles for one-time real estate fees it receives and for development outside the community's boundaries.
The recession has halved home sales in St. Charles that totaled 700 in peak years and is delaying groundbreaking for a regional shopping center on U.S. 301.
Stuart said Interstate General Corp. picked Charles County for its first development in the continental United States because it foresaw growth.
"We didn't buy this ground because we thought we could make it grow," he noted. "We bought this ground because all the studies of the Washington growth patterns indicated that Charles County was going to be a growth area."
St. Charles has quickened the county's pace to becoming part of the Washington urban area, a status its location made inevitable. The county became a part of the Washington metropolitan area in 1973.
The 1980 Census reported that the county's population had jumped 52.5 percent since 1970, from 47,678 to 72,751. St. Charles accounted for about half that increase, with a 1980 population of 13,921. Statewide, Southern Maryland had the largest percentage of growth of any region.
"I think that if growth in Southern Maryland was inevitable in the 1970s, and it was, then St. Charles was a good way to do it," said Gary Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council, the planning and development agency for Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
County officials are pleased by St. Charles' growth.
"It's a great asset to the county," County Commissioner Loretta Nimmerrichter said, noting the additional residents, industry and tax base the community has brought. "It's beautifully laid out and planned."
The jobs provided in St. Charles have helped keep unemployment low in the county, said Raymond Tilghman, director of the Economic Development Commission for Charles County, an independent, business-financed organization. In July, Charles County had the state's second-lowest jobless rate, 4.8 percent. Montgomery County had 4.5 percent, while the state average was 8.6 percent.
The community has a partially filled business park and others are on the drawing board. Businesses in the park and elsewhere in St. Charles provide more than 900 full-time jobs and about 450 part-time positions, according to a July report by the developer.
About half of the community's 12,000 workers commute to jobs in Washington, while a quarter of the work force is employed in Charles County. The remaining quarter works in other counties.
Although county officials have overcome their wariness of St. Charles, many longtime county residents have not.
"There's definitely an old-line county faction who don't want St. Charles and want us to go away," said Kem Worley, president of the Carrington Neighorhood Association in St. Charles. He said some residents fear the county is losing its rural flavor because of the urban growth St. Charles has pushed.
Nimmerrichter, 51, born and raised in Charles County, agreed there has been resentment of St. Charles but noted some St. Charles homeowners have been as cool toward the rest of the county.
"The two seemed to ignore what each other had to offer," she said. St. Charles residents wouldn't visit other spots in the county, while county residents refused to go to St. Charles, she said.
But relations have eased somewhat over the last couple of years, she said. "They both have the same interests and worries: They both want to live in a peaceful community and good schools. People in the county are realizing they're [St. Charles residents] just as churchgoing as they are."
As St. Charles has developed, it has encountered problems of growing up. Community leaders cite crime, mostly vandalism and juvenile problems, and school crowding as worries. But they said the crime is no more than at similar communities.
St. Charles' neighborhood associations and village council asked the county to build a sheriff's substation on land the developer was willing to donate, but the county refused. Jackie Gouveia, executive secretary of the Bannister Neighborhood Association, said the residents believed the substation would improve police service and would deter crime.
But Nimmerrichter said the substation would merely duplicate services and equipment at the sheriff's department office seven miles south in La Plata.
Community leaders also expressed concern over school crowding. Loretta Webb, the county school system's assistant superintendent for instruction, said Thomas Stone High School is seriously overcrowded, and the problem probably would be resolved by busing students to other high schools. The state has ruled out a new high school, she said.
About 1,900 students attend the high school, where the main building is designed for no more than 1,250 students and portable classrooms can accommodate 350 more for a total of 1,600, Webb said.
As the 10-year-old community has grown, so has its community spirit, although civic leaders say that enthusiasm is not strong. The community also has not flexed its muscle in county politics.
A general apathy among residents is particularly troublesome when it comes to community involvement, although membership in all but one of the neighborhood associations is mandatory. The Carrington area is excepted because it was started by other developers before St. Charles took it over.
"But when they get hit in the pocketbook, then they'll pay attention to anything," Worley said.
Community leaders blamed the apathy partly on the weariness of commuting. "No one wants to attend night meetings after having commuted home," noted Judith Peel, president of the Wakefield Neighborhood Association. Another reason cited was the one-year terms for the neighborhood association's board of directors and the Smallwood Village Council, which represents each neighborhood and is responsible for maintaining common areas.
While St. Charles seeks its identity, residents are happy with the lifestyle they have.
"St. Charles appealed to me because I liked the way they developed it," Gouveia said. "They didn't level all the trees. And I don't feel like I'm living in a project. It is a development, but it doesn't seem like that."
She said her family moved to the new community after tiring of what she called Prince George's County's high taxes, inadequate services and deteriorating schools. "I watched it change, and I didn't like it," she said.
Peel and her family were drawn to St. Charles four years ago partly by home prices that the developer says are 20 percent lower than in Washington. They bought a three-bedroom split-foyer house for $55,000. "Rockville was too expensive, and the same home in Bowie was $8,000 more," she said.
Three-bedroom houses in St. Charles now range from $66,000 to $110,000, while town houses go from nearly $50,000 to $70,000 or more.
For Betsy Hodge and her husband Gary, of the Tri-County Council, St. Charles is an attractive area to raise their three sons. "My children can walk to school, and in rural areas that's unusual because schools and homes are so far apart," Gary Hodge said. His office is 10 minutes away.
St. Charles also allows them to be close to the District, yet keep their distance. "I've always enjoyed Washington, the people who work there, the excitement of it," said Betsy Hodge, who, like her husband, had lived in Silver Spring as a child. "But I like living away from it, where the pace is slower."