On a fresh, clear morning, Aquasco looks like the sort of place that city dwellers might seek out for a change of scenery -- if only they knew it existed.
Pastureland, shadowed with hollows and dotted with tin-roofed barns, rolls from either side of Aquasco Road in southernmost Prince George's County. The houses have shutters, big porches and names like "Sunnyside Farm." A pink-and-white '57 Ford sits in a driveway. Cows stare mildly at the few passing cars.
While the community has occasional bursts of excitement -- drag-racing is common on Aquasco Road and a prankster has changed the "35" on the speed-limit sign to "85" -- it is usually a tranquil place.
But now a controversy is dividing the several hundred residents of Aquasco, an area once known for its local speedway. Never mind that the isolated 500-acre area is an hour's drive from Washington and 15 minutes from Waldorf, the nearest town. Residents are afraid that if Washington residents knew of Aquasco's beauty they might settle there, but they're divided on how best to protect their home from becoming another Washington suburb.
Some residents would like to see Aquasco become a county historic district, a protective move that requires special approval for such things as new construction, installation or removal of fencing, or painting of masonry -- strategy that they hope will preserve the area and prevent its commercialization. Others view historic designation as one more means for government to intrude into their lives and tell them what to do with their property. They also fear that a historic district would attract more outsiders to live in the area. The proposal is before the county council.
Ironically, both sides have the same goal: Nobody wants Aquasco to change.
There are a lot of people down here who have lived here for generations," said Julie Bright, 28, who favors a historic district. "They are independent sorts and they don't want any red tape. I think they don't realize how unique Aquasco is because they have lived here all their lives. Nobody wants things to change, but historic designation is a way for us to become involved in changes that are inevitable."
"Land is land and it was all created at the same time by the Lord," said John L. DeMarr, 45, a lifelong resident of Aquasco and an outspoken opponent of the historic district. "He didn't make any distinction about what was historic and what wasn't. The thing this whole country was founded upon was individual rights and this historic designation junk is nothing but suppression of choice by a governmental agency."
The Aquasco community and a smaller area across the county known as Broad Creek would be the first county historic district in Prince George's County, said Gail Rothrock, a county planner. The county already has designated 180 individual historic sites -- mills, churches, and houses -- and three areas are nationally registered as historic, but the Aquasco and Broad Creek proposals forced the county to draw up its first guidelines for districts, she said.
If the areas become historic districts, a committee of local people would review any changes, such as an addition to a home. The property owner would have to obtain a historic-area work permit, as well as a routine county work permit.
The Aquasco and Broad Creek proposals have been approved by the county's historic preservation commission, but final approval must come from the county council, which will hear the appeals of opponents. Those hearings have not yet been scheduled.
In Broad Creek, near Fort Washington and the Potomac River, the district would be based on four early to mid-18th century landmarks in a two-mile area on Livingston Road -- including St. John's Church, where George Washington occasionally worshipped.
"We're afraid of all this encroaching development," said Pauline Collins, president of the Tanta-Cove Garden Club, the group that did the Broad Creek research. "This whole area looks like something out of the 18th century and we just thought, if it starts going commercial, we've lost it forever. I have the feeling civilization is already on its way."
The opposition in Broad Creek is minimal compared to that in Aquasco, Rothrock said.
"Mostly, it just comes from people who don't think their land is historic," she said, "whereas in Aquasco, it's more a lack of understanding about what a historic dictrict means."
Aquasco's historic value comes from its well-preserved picture of 18th and 19th century agrarian life in southern Maryland, said Rothrock. The area continues to be a tobacco-growing center.
"It is basically an undiscovered area, but it is close enough to Washington that at some point, people will want to live here," said Bright, who lives with her husband and 11-month-old daughter in a large house that is the former rectory of St. Mary's Church.
Community hearings on the subject in January quickly became ugly, Bright said.
"Some of the people feel very threatened," she said, "and they didn't know what else to do but lash out."
Opponents like DeMarr contend that zoning already offers enough protection to Aquasco residents. DeMarr said that the owners of two-thirds of the property in the proposed district oppose the designation.
"Families go back a long way here," he said. "We like it out here and we don't want a lot of newcomers, and we don't want the extra traffic recognition brings. So everybody can just leave us alone."