Developers never rushed to the Davidsonville corner of Anne Arundel County. They came in dribs and drabs, building large houses on large lots overlooking large farms, where well-to-do commuters could live in splendid isolation.
Today, there are just 3,000 residents living on 16 square miles of Davidsonville, a large chunk of rolling countryside stretching south from Rte. 50 to Central Avenue and from the Patuxent River, which marks the Prince George's County line, east to the South River. County zoning laws and a reluctance by farmers to sell their fields have kept the houses large, scattered and expensive.
Farming still is the area's biggest business, and a person not born in Davidsonville is likely to be called a newcomer. The newcomers generally look to Washington as the big city, and many of the new residents are wealthy lawyers, high-ranking government employees and business executives.
"It's convenient to Washington and to Annapolis," said Gail Enright, who works for the League of Women Voters in the District and had lived in Annapolis before moving to an old family house in Davidsonville. "Yet there's the open space, and the farms are beautiful to look at -- and that's why so many people are moving in," she said.
The farmers and newcomers come from different worlds, but they remain united in their determination to keep Davidsonville a rural community, even though it is just 12 miles from the Capital Beltway.
There are only a handful of businesses in Davidsonville: three nurseries, a few sand and gravel operations near the Patuxent, the general store at Central Avenue and Davidsonville Road, and a small pub. The nearest major shopping areas are at the Annapolis Mall or in Bowie.
Entertainment can be found at the Davidsonville Recreation Center, where the Annapolis Radio Club and a few other organizations meet, or at the athletic association, the 4-H Club or the Davidsonville Ruritan Club. The number of community activities in Davidsonville has expanded as people have moved there, residents say, but most of the entertainment is self-made.
"We've made a conscious effort not to have a cinema downtown or a shopping center or any of those so-called amenities," said R. Graydon Ripley, owner of the Farm of Four Winds off Davidsonville Road. "People appreciate the bucolic rural atmosphere here, and children in the local school are very interested in athletic pursuits. That's about the only thing the area has besides solitude.
"One of the things that's impressed me is that the newcomers are very possessive and appreciative of what they were gaining when they came to Davidsonville," Ripley said. "They are often more protective of the area than people who have been there for some time."
When developers started building a few new subdivisions on two-acre lots in the late 1970s, Davidsonville residents protested. In response, the county council changed the zoning laws so that almost all new houses there had to be built on 20-acre lots. That zoning is expected to be retained when the county finishes the large comprehensive rezoning project now under way.
"What we're looking for is to retain its rural character," said James Cannelli, the assistant county planning officer. "There's very little growth potential there. We're not planning any utilities out there, any water and sewer, or any of the other trappings you'd normally see for development."
One of the results is that Davidsonville houses are mostly big, expensive and difficult for a buyer to find. According to the Anne Arundel County Board of Realtors, the average selling price of a single-family house in Davidsonville last year was $204,320 -- higher than any other real estate district in the county, where the average house sale price last year was $118,120. That was up more than $13,000 from the 1986 Davidsonville average.
While many farms in Davidsonville have been broken up and developed over the years, a surprising number have remained intact. Farmers said they are subjected to a constant stream of unsolicited visits from developers offering amazing prices for their land, but they generally have resisted the temptation to sell.
"People that live here haven't been in a hurry to sell their property," Ripley said. "The rise in prices makes the old-timer nervous. He might appreciate the fact he has a valuable piece of land, but to him it's land, not money. Most of the larger farm owners aren't that interested in developing."
Ripley and other farmers say the soil in the Davidsonville area is rich, a loam that holds moisture better than the sandy soil found in most other parts of Anne Arundel County. Tobacco was their main income for years; it was carted to the docks at Riva on the nearby South River and then shipped north to Baltimore.
Today, corn, soybeans and hay for the horse farms in the southern part of the county are grown, and the crops are shipped out by truck.
The farms still line Davidsonville Road, which runs through the community on the crest of a ridge that separates the South River from the Patuxent River.
The newer houses, built over the last 30 years for wealthy commuters, stand back from the main road.
A few small neighborhoods within Davidsonville are different, however. One of them is Riverwood, a collection of smaller houses near the Patuxent River in southern Davidsonville.
Riverwood's homes are built on half-acre lots -- minuscule pieces of property by Davidsonville standards -- and are among the least expensive homes in the area.
And while most houses in Davidsonville stand in the open countryside, Riverwood's houses are surrounded by trees.
"It's a nice little community," said Wanda King, a real estate agent with Davidsonville Realty, which is located in back of the general store at Central Avenue and Davidsonville Road. "A house and a lot there can go from $110,000 or $125,000. If any come on the market, they go like hotcakes."
Another exception is the newer Foxhall Estates, a large tract development near the Davidsonville Elementary School on Central Avenue with large houses built in a handful of basic designs. Though some of the houses are unusual in their design, they are not unusual in their prices, King said, with price tags of $300,000 or more, which is nothing to raise eyebrows in Davidsonville.
"The development that has occurred here is all clearly for the upper middle-class and beyond," said Frederick W. Hegge, a former Davidsonville Civic Association president and county school board president who moved to a 135-year-old house here 18 years ago.
While he is concerned that Davidsonville is becoming a rich peoples' enclave, Hegge said he has no right to be surprised.
"It's not something new," he said. "When we first moved here, the real estate man who sold us a dilapidated apartment house said: 'Young man, you're making a marvelous investment. This is going to be the next Potomac.' In effect, that's what we're in the process of becoming."