Darnestown is a Montgomery County community whose 5,000 residents are waking up to the rumblings of commercial development intruding on their small-town atmosphere. And many residents say they'd rather not be disturbed.
Last April, nearly 200 residents packed into the Presbyterian church on Rte. 28 to tell their civic association leaders to fight any attempts at large-scale commercial development or changes in zoning ordinances, according to Greater Darnestown Civic Association officials.
People at the standing-room-only town meeting said they oppose more commercial development and sewer lines, civic association secretary Steven Wetzler said.
Many Darnestown residents are worried that Nathan Landow, a developer and prominent Democratic Party fund-raiser, will use his political clout to change the zoning ordinances to allow him to build a 200,000-square-foot shopping center on the 18 acres of land that he owns in the community's downtown, according to Marsha Crowley, who is the president of the civic association.
Currently, 4.8 acres of Landow's property at Seneca Road and Rte. 28 are zoned for commercial use and the rest for a residential neighborhood.
Landow said he has not decided how he would like to develop the land, but that he will present his plan once it is completed to residents for their approval. He said that his company is busy with other developments and that any work in Darnestown wouldn't be started for several years.
"They don't want to see the site developed," Landow said. "They have set their mind to find ways to block the development."
There is another element to the Darnestown development debate: The houses on Landow's property are in one of 50 historic districts in the county that are being considered for preservation.
The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission recommended that the buildings in Darnestown not be put in the master plan as protected historic sites because they have been significantly altered over the years, according to Bobbi Hahn, the commission's director.
But a final decision won't come until after a public planning board hearing in September, she said.
In the meantime, demolition permits will be issued only if the planning board approves. However, Hahn said Landow obtained one demolition permit after the county's department of environmental protection mistakenly did not forward the application to the planning board. Landow destroyed one of the old houses standing on his land, Hahn said.
She said the planning board at its Sept. 17 meeting will also discuss Landow's application for demolition permits for other houses.
But some Darnestown residents who oppose large-scale commercial development also say they would like a "quaint" or small shopping center. Long-time Darnestown resident Rebecca Offutt, 68, who lives across the street from Landow's property, said the Quince Orchard shopping center three miles away is a bit far to go for a birthday card.
"I'd really kind of like to see a store or something around here," said Offutt, who has lived in Darnestown since 1935. She said she would like a little coffee shop across the street because she and about 12 friends now meet at the McDonald's restaurant a few miles away every morning for coffee and conversation.
Even with the possibility of more development across from her house, Offutt said, "I've been here so long I'd feel kind of funny going somewhere else."
She grew up on a farm three miles south of Darnestown, and her husband's family was one of the first to start selling farm land for development into housing subdivisions in the 1950s, she said.
"It was quite a shock to see all those housing developments built," she said.
Because Darnestown has septic sewage systems instead of sewer lines, its houses have to be built on at least a half acre of land to accommodate space for the septic fields and some parcels in the area are as large as 25 acres.
Single-family dwellings cost from $125,000 to $500,000, according to Crowley, who is also a Merrill Lynch real estate agent.
The vast majority of residents own their own homes and stay in them for about nine years, according to county officials.
Darnestown residents tend to be involved in community activities, swim meets at the Swim and Racquet Club, sledding parties and picnics. "People don't move here unless they're family oriented," Crowley said.
Darnestown's roots began around 1750 as a farming center with a blacksmith, wheelwright, doctor, tavern keeper and merchant for local farmers needing services and supplies, according to Darnestown resident and history buff Nancy Houston. The center was named after William Darne, who owned the property at the crossroads of what is now Seneca Road and Rte. 28, she said.
During the Civil War, Darnestown was used as a signal station, and thousands of Yankee troops were stationed there. After the Civil War and until the turn of the century, Darnestown prospered as more homes and the Presbyterian Church were built, Houston said.
But she said that when the railroad brought more business and activity to nearby Gaithersburg and Germantown, Darnestown quieted down.
Now, most Darnestown residents would prefer to keep it that way.