Crofton is a town that so values its idyllic Norman Rockwell image that it keeps a family counselor on the payroll to help keep it that way.

The exclusive Anne Arundel County suburb of almost 10,000 -- located in a triangle of highways between Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis -- first hired a resident counselor in the 1970s, when teen drug use and the protest movement frightened parents who had moved into the once-segregated development of large, modern homes to escape big city problems.

Last year, when there was an effort to cut the $25,000 allocated for free counseling services out of the town's $500,000-a-year budget, the community "reacted with a resounding 'no,' " said town administrator Barbara Swan, a longtime Crofton resident.

"This is an upper-middle-class community, but one that realizes there are people living in these nice houses who are suffering," she said. "There was a feeling that if we could save one child from suicide or help one parent it was worth it."

Built around a country club in the early 1960s, with many back yards facing golf course greens, Crofton was the brainchild of Louisiana developer Hamilton Crawford, who visualized a family-oriented neighborhood of modern homes surrounding an old-fashioned village green of picturesque shops, offices, schools and churches. At the development's main entrance on Route 3N near Bowie, the builders placed imposing brick gates that came to symbolize the community's early whites-only attitude.

"For a while, you had to apply for the country club in person. Essentially, I think segregation was what the gates meant to a lot of people, and like it or not I think that was the idea," said Becky Daniel, a Crofton resident of 21 years who began compiling a town history for its 25th anniversary last year.

"Most definitely, all that has changed. There is now no sense of racial discrimination in this community at all," she said.

The first residents moved in in November 1964, surrounded by muddy lots, a few homes and acres of rolling farmland. Yet almost immediately, a "sense of community sprang up. That first Christmas, there were carolers. They organized their community association and clubs soon afterward. There's always been a sense of belonging in Crofton," Daniel said.

Today, the town's population, which is still predominately white, has grown and diversified with construction of town houses and lower-priced single-family homes on the community's borders. Housing prices range from about $110,000 for a three-bedroom town house to $350,000 for a four-bedroom, single-family dwelling.

Financed through a special tax assessment, the town provides upkeep of the village square, medians lined with flowering trees and common areas. It also finances a five-person police department. The village square, which houses two restaurants and a number of professional offices, is the community's pride and joy, a special place for afternoon strolls and leisurely Sunday brunch.

On school days, children walk to the town's three elementary schools and a junior high school. Parents have been hoping for years for a high school, but plans are still indefinite.

With only a 15-minute commute to Fort Meade, the town has become a favorite bedroom community for the military and employees of the National Security Agency. But its population includes University of Maryland professors, lawyers and professionals attracted by the equal commute between Washington and Baltimore.

Realtor Marilyn Risher, who lives in Crofton, said much of the town's housing turnover comes when growing families move to larger houses within the neighborhood or retired couples leave their larger homes for cozier Crofton town houses. "People don't leave Crofton unless they're going to warmer climates," she said.

Recently, Crofton's tranquillity has been jarred by a crime. Earlier this fall, a young woman was robbed and killed at a neighborhood shopping center, and neighbors are still talking about a recent major drug bust at one of the community's nicer homes involving the son of a National Security Agency official.

Daniel said the events are atypical but symptomatic of Crofton's growing pains as new developments spring up on the surrounding pastureland that used to give the town its coveted feeling of isolation.

"We've been through the roughest year that Crofton has ever known, but crime comes with any kind of development," she said. "We've been lucky to avoid it" this long.

Safety was one of the attractions for former out-of-state residents Jim and Marcia Collett who bought their Crofton house on the recommendation of relatives in Virginia and Annapolis who had heard about the community's reputation as an ideal commuters' town.

Collett, who works for Bell-Atlantic Corp., is now the part-time director of zoning for the town; his wife is active in the Crofton Players' Guild and other community organizations. They arrived on a Sunday house-hunting trip on a beautiful May afternoon, with cherry blossoms in bloom on the town's main thoroughfare, the Crofton Parkway, and church bells chiming from the village square. "We thought we were on a movie set, so we figured we had better stay," said Maria Collett, an Alabama native.

More than nine years later, they still feel like they landed in a "very special place," an oasis in the concrete sprawl of the surrounding cities, she said.