Amid the car dealerships, strip shopping centers and fast-food restaurants that define Route 40 west of Ellicott City is a two-story stone building. It stood there before Route 40 existed and served as a stop for weary 19th-century travelers on a rough toll road between Baltimore and Frederick.
The building has been a hotel, a country store and a gas station over the decades as the old turnpike evolved into Route 40, one of the first national east-west highways.
These days, people stop at the stone house and its modern-day additions to buy wine at Pine Orchard Liquors, get their slacks altered at Ellicott City Tailor or buy a bird feeder at the shop called Wildlife Authority.
That kind of change, says a group of county officials and residents, reflects well on Howard's seven-mile stretch of Route 40.
"That's the mark of a viable commercial corridor -- responding to uses needed at that time," said Ann Jones, an Ellicott City resident who co-chairs a county-appointed task force.
The group has been studying ways to improve Route 40's looks, make it more accessible to nearby neighborhoods and untangle the traffic that clots major intersections.
But gauging how much growth should be encouraged has become complicated, with a group of residents contending the task force is ignoring the biggest potential impact of all -- a huge housing and commercial expansion at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center.
"If you haven't considered the project that [impacts] all of Route 40, we think it compromises all of the [task force] findings," said Marc Norman, a resident of one of Turf Valley's two existing subdivisions.
The Route 40 task force, which has been meeting since last fall, is expected later this summer to recommend revisions to the county's land-use policies.
Those suggestions about the highway then will be considered by the county Planning Board and ultimately by the County Council, which likely will act on them this fall.
Unlike the more deteriorated Route 1 corridor to the east, Route 40 needs "enhancement," not a major overhaul, according to the task force.
The roadway's strengths include the affluent neighborhoods that flank it and that provide customers for the businesses there. Route 40 also has stretches of green that break up commercial areas clustered at major intersections with Rogers Avenue, North Chatham Road and Centennial Lane.
"This is a highly attractive location," said Route 40 businessman George Brown, who sold the Pine Orchard property in 2002 and then moved his construction and heating and air conditioning businesses to a nearby building.
"It's the hub of a wheel."
It's also an accident-prone highway, with a confusing hodgepodge of entrances and exits. Traffic backs up at the interchange with Route 29. And the few pedestrians who venture onto Route 40 must navigate road shoulders and intersections without sidewalks and crosswalks.
St. Johns community resident Lynne Bergling recalled trying to cross six lanes of Route 40 with her young children years ago.
"Once I got across, I was scared to death to try to come back. I called a neighbor to come get me," she said.
Off Route 40 also lies the forlorn remains of the Enchanted Forest, a popular storybook theme park that closed in 1989. Residents are still hoping the county will try to preserve what did not get bulldozed for a shopping center in the early 1990s.
The Route 40 of the future should find ways to promote redevelopment, since only 68 of the study area's 2,603 acres are undeveloped commercially-zoned property, the task force has said.
"If it doesn't look different in 20 or 30 years, it's unfortunately going to start going downhill," Jones, the task force co-chairman, told a crowd of more than 100 during a public workshop last month.
But residents were not so sure the task force has the answers.
Some were concerned that the suggested mix of office and retail uses at intersections such as Frederick Road and Centennial Lane just south of Route 40 would intrude on neighborhoods.
"I don't want to wake up at 1 in the morning and hear, 'Do you want fries with that?' " said Fairways resident Lauren McKee.
Others believe the task force has erred in not evaluating the expansion of Turf Valley, which is at the western end of Route 40 and has a zoning designation as a planned golf course community.
Turf Valley's developer, Mangione Family Enterprises, won county approval in 1986 to build nearly 1,400 homes and more than 444,000 square feet of office space on 690 acres, as well as two 18-hole golf courses.
In some ways, the project has kept a low profile as the Mangiones developed only about 150 homes, concentrating instead on building its golf courses and 220-room hotel and conference center.
The Turf Valley project was approved several years before the county enacted a law requiring that adequate public facilities, such as roads and schools, be available before development takes place.
Turf Valley remains exempt from the law, which is designed to regulate the pace of development in the county.
Last year, however, the Mangiones told county officials they want to build several hundred additional housing units, near Interstate 70 and Marriottsville Road.
Those would be subjected to the adequate facilities law, and the County Council is expected to hear the matter this fall.
The Mangiones' revised proposal would bring the total Turf Valley housing units to 1,882, said Steven M. Johns, a county planning supervisor. The developers' proposal also detailed plans for country club villas at the resort and 72,000 square feet of retail space, he said.
The expansion plans have captured the attention of residents in the Route 40 corridor.
"I never even knew it was being proposed," said Patricia Brocato-Simons, a Route 40 task force member and president of the homeowners association for Turf Valley Overlook, a subdivision near the resort and conference center.
"Isn't this a bit much?" said Norman, a resident of the Vistas at Turf Valley who has organized neighborhoods into a group calling for greater county scrutiny of the project.
"Shouldn't we take a look at the broad regional development that's going on to right-size what this project should be?" he asked.
The Mangiones, who did not return phone calls requesting an interview, also want to build a new resort road that would cross the Little Patuxent River and funnel traffic onto Marriottsville Road between Route 40 and Interstate 70. The developer is applying for county and state permits for the road.
Although county officials have resisted asking the task force to examine the Turf Valley project, they have created a citizen committee to review the development and consult with Louis Mangione, who represents the developer.
Norman serves on that committee and contended it does not have the funding or staff help to do a thorough job.
However, County Council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County), whose district includes Turf Valley, said questions about the project's impact are being addressed by the citizen committee and through a county staff report that will assess Turf Valley's effect on public services.
Still, Brocato-Simons said she feels uneasy, especially since Turf Valley is the largest undeveloped parcel near Route 40.
"This whole disjointed process is not good," she said. "There's so much future impact to the whole surrounding area and to this corridor."