A story in last week's Extra said that many roads in the county were unpaved until recently. Melwood Road, just outside the Capital Beltway, was unpaved until late July. The only other county-maintained road that remains unpaved is Moore's Way, which runs into Melwood. (Published 09/22/1999)
For decades, roads in the Prince George's countryside were unpaved. Even when the Capital Beltway came and subdivisions sprouted, asphalt spread, but many roads in the county, just a few miles from downtown D.C., were untouched. Such was the fate of Melwood Road, a narrow and winding gravel pathway through a Brigadoonish valley of farms and pastures with grazing cows, sheep and horses.
The last 1.5-mile unpaved stretch of the three-mile country road that lies, incongruously, a mile outside the Beltway and just north of Route 4, was blacktopped in late July. Change came finally but abruptly. And like many issues that affect the quality of life, the change has not been greeted silently.
Pavement is a pleasure to Gilbert Moore, a lifelong resident who mounted a one-man campaign to bring this common amenity to his neck of the county.
"I just got tired of not being able to have a clean car, of breathing the dust every time I cut my grass," said Moore, 69. "I got tired of the mud, the holes. It was muddy when it rained, it was dusty when it was dry." Added his wife, Clara: "Our cars were a mess. Of course, it's much better now. At least I can hang clothes out now and not worry about the dust."
But Elaine Huttenloch, whose Melwood Road property is where the pavement ended and the gravel began, is alarmed. "It's a drag race now," she said. "I mean it's wide open spaces now for everybody to cut through." On a recent weeknight from 7 to 8, she said, she sat on her front porch and counted 22 cars "just rolling through here. . . . In the morning, from 6:30 to 7, I can't get out of my driveway for all the cars cutting through.
"I'll tell you, the other week, we had a guy going too fast from Westphalia Road to Pennsylvania Avenue. He went airborne into the bank on the right side, rolled over three times into the woods. They took all three in the car to the hospital. I realize it's a public road and we have to move on, and that quiet serene attitude we had will be changed. It's just changed the neighborhood to a freeway."
Huttenloch and her husband were among 15 residents who signed a petition as the paving was getting underway, asking the county to introduce safety measures such as traffic bumps, center lines and a pedestrian walkway. On Sept. 2, the county agreed to the lines but rejected the rest "due to the rural nature of the roadway," which first came into use in 1830 as a plantation access road.
Moore, whose persistence has brought quiet Melwood Road to this new condition, did not sign the petition, though he says he's not opposed to it. Moore's brick rambler rests on two acres, a tiny remnant of his father's farm. His property sits smack in the middle of the formerly unpaved portion, which dips and rises, winds sharply and gently and crosses a narrow bridge over a creek.
Across from his house and all around him are about 700 acres owned by the family of the late A.H. Smith, who was a prominent banker, sand and gravel man and horse breeder. Smith, a Riverdale native who died in 1987 at age 84, was president of Citizens Bank of Maryland. A high school dropout, he became wealthy and moved his family to the Melwood Road farm in 1940. He liked the road just the way it was.
"He didn't want it paved," said his daughter, Marilyn Smith Ketts, who was raised on the farm known as Blythewood and now lives on another horse farm in Aquasco. "Owning both sides of the road, there wasn't a need for it."
Marshall Hammond, a resident of the road who worked for Smith in the 1960s, said: "Let's put it this way, it never got paved as long as he was alive. I know he was opposed to it. He said, 'I own both sides of the road, run cattle and farm equipment on it, and the dirt will keep traffic down a little.' "
Huttenloch remembers bringing some stray cattle back to the Smith spread and him telling her, "They can walk on the gravel, that's why I like it that way, because the cows can cross the road from one pasture to the other."
So whenever paving was raised, it never went anywhere. Said Moore, "Everybody I talked to said initially, 'Mr. Moore, you know why it's not paved,' but nobody would come out and say." Yet, if A.H. Smith was a roadblock to paving, his children weren't.
"I don't use the road but twice a day," said A.H. Smith Jr., 65, who lives on the family farm with 49 head of black Aberdeen Angus cattle, 30 sheep and two dozen horses. "It wouldn't make any difference to me."
To Moore, a former tobacco farmer and retired auto claims adjuster, it mattered a lot. "The dust would come from the road, cover everything," he said. "I finally came to the breaking point. If it's the last thing I do, I decided . . . I believe they say the squeaky axle gets the grease. I was determined."
Starting in 1996, he began writing letters to the county and the local newspapers.
"I humbly invite each and all persons involved," he wrote in a signed letter last year, "to walk in my shoes, ride in my dirty and rattling vehicles, breathe Melwood Road dust through your lungs and dodge the bumps and holes and danger year round."
In a letter to Moore on Aug. 8, 1996, Betty Hager Francis, director of the county's department of public works and transportation, blamed the problem on "budgetary constraints and local opposition." However, she wrote, "Melwood Road has been moved up on the priority list of roads to be paved." In December 1997, she wrote that the road "continues to be considered a high priority for paving," and was included in a draft repaving contract for 1998, which came and went. No paving.
Last October, she wrote Moore that "great demand" and "unanticipated costs" had caused yet another delay. Yet she held out hope. Melwood Road remained a "high priority."
The pavers finally came on Wednesday, July 21, worked through Friday and finished the job on Monday at a cost to the county of $143,785.01.
There was no notice. "One day, I was awakened by the trucks out front that blocked us off so I couldn't get to work," Huttenloch said.
County officials said they paved the street to eliminate the high cost of maintenance, up to $75,000 a year in personnel and equipment, on a road that carried, before paving, 300 vehicles a day.
The county said there were 12 accidents between 1995 and 1998, and no accidents have been reported since the paving. However, Bill Huttenloch, a volunteer firefighter, said he has been on four accident calls involving injuries since the paving.
But paving the road has given Moore serenity.
"Thank the Lord, we finally got it paved," he said. "It's great to be able to drive back and forth, especially when it's raining, and not have your car so splashed with mud you can't tell what color it is. It's just a blessing."
CAPTION: Gilbert Moore, tired of dust and mud from Melwood Road, campaigned for years to get it paved near his home.
CAPTION: "It's a drag race now," said a resident of the newly paved Melwood Road.