Welcome to Clarksburg.
It's now three years into Clarksburg's transformation from sleepy, rural crossroads into the "corridor town" envisioned in Montgomery County's 1994 master plan.
And it's going to be quite a change:
From 800 homes and 10,000 acres of fields and woods to 15,000 or so housing units over the next 20 years.
From fewer than 2,000 residents to about 43,000.
From a town that got its first stoplight in 1991 to a place where roads back up in the mornings as the first new residents funnel to the interstate highway.
It's not obvious what's going on as you approach this once-pastoral 252-year-old community, just off Interstate 270 between Germantown and Frederick. There are still just a handful of buildings at the main intersection, about 30 miles from downtown Washington.
But venture a little past the crossroads of Clarksburg Road and Frederick Road (the extension of what's known as Route 355 and then Rockville Pike closer to Washington), and you're at the locus of development in Montgomery County.
About 6,800 detached houses, townhouses and condominiums have been approved by the county to date, and thousands more are proposed. Hundreds have been completed.
Altogether, more than a dozen builders are constructing homes or working with developers to rezone open land for about two dozen subdivisions.
Trucks ply the narrow roads, leaving behind clouds of dust, shoulder ruts, nails and uneven surfaces wrinkled with dirt. New roads are either under construction or marked out. Old roads are being rerouted. New schools are being built or on the way.
Construction workers crowd the single lunch spot in town, the one-room Clarksburg Beer, Wine and Grille. Because many workers speak only Spanish, some of the Latino short-order cooks are pressed into service to translate orders. The store now has 15 employees working from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
"It's great for us, but we'd kind of welcome some competition soon," said Aric Rudden, who bought the store with his dad 22 years ago.
It's a lot to get used to, as the locals are finding. As the developers proceed, the civic association is getting a workout. Its longtime president recently quit, but promises to stay on top of his concerns about making developers stick to the plan.
His replacement says it's definitely becoming a bigger challenge as new phases of the plan kick in.
The Clarksburg Town Center subdivision, where construction started first, in 2001, might seem the sharpest contrast to visitors who stumble across it off the interstate. Popping up in the middle of nowhere are streets lined with closely spaced single-family houses, townhouses and condos, clustered around grassy squares and tiny parks.
The buildings sit close to the street, with alleys for access to garages, as well as sidewalks to link the streets to the new urban center. A swimming pool is being built overlooking one part of the subdivision. The new center is to include a town square, a civic building, such as a library, and space for retail and commercial enterprises.
Though it might seem odd to find what looks like a piece of Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria in the middle of farmland and woods, this is all according to plan. Clarksburg Town Center, which will eventually have 1,300 housing units, is meant to emulate the "neo-traditional" design pioneered locally 15 years ago in the Kentlands, and then the Lakelands, in Gaithersburg. King Farm in Rockville is another neo-traditional community.
Neo-traditionalism, also called new urbanism, is a suburban planning philosophy that relies on such old-fashioned elements as alleys, porches and small lots to create communities that aim to echo the best of old-fashioned towns. When done right, proponents argue, neo-traditional developments make smart use of land to create walkable neighborhoods that foster a sense of community, in contrast to auto-dependent sprawl.
Clarksburg Town Center's plan differs from some of Montgomery County's other neo-traditional communities because it requires more green space -- almost half of the 208-acre subdivision will be dedicated to nature.
The county's plan for all of Clarksburg, in fact, emphasizes the neo-traditional approach. By calling for housing, stores and offices in dense clusters interspersed with open land, it aims to allow growth while keeping about a third of the area's 10,000 acres rural or agricultural.
The other key element of the county plan is a transportation network that will include gridded streets, rather than cul-de-sacs, and three transportation hubs, where buses or light-rail will move commuters to the Shady Grove Metro station.
Subdivisions outside the Town Center are also being built with neo-traditional elements. Elm Street's Clarksburg Village and Arora Hills, 1,300 units from Beazer Homes USA, Ryan Homes and Rocky Gorge Homes LLC, are "hybrids," said Les Powell, a key engineer on several of the projects for Charles P. Johnson & Associates Inc. in Silver Spring.
The "hybrid" approach, Powell said, stems both from the rolling topography, which makes it hard in some cases to build on gridded streets, and from buyer preferences.
"For those who want to live in a community in a single-family home but don't have a lot of time to put into the yard, the neo-traditional lot appeals," he said. "But a lot of people prefer to have a little bit bigger yard. . . . And some don't like to have the alley-loaded" garages.
While developers and the county say they're going to deliver on a plan that avoids sprawl and congestion, some Clarksburg longtimers -- and some newcomers -- are watching warily.
"It is a lot harder" to pay attention to the details of all the developments that are going on now, said Paul Majewski, who recently became president of the civic association. "It was one thing when we had just the one developer [of the Town Center]. Now we have more than a dozen."
Last month the civic association told county leaders of fears that the promised roads and schools won't be ready in time or won't be adequate. That prompted reassurances from County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who said developers won't get building permits if schools are inadequate.
Developers and builders, meanwhile, say they're paying the highest impact fees in the state to get the infrastructure in place in time. And they say they're living up to their part of the bargain.
"Clarksburg is unfolding exactly as it should have according to the master plan," said Steve Nardella, senior vice president of Winchester Homes, the chief developer behind Cabin Branch, a development that received planning board approval earlier this month.
While plans for Clarksburg have been on the books for years, the reality of the new growth is stunning -- for those who have anticipated it for decades and for those who have just arrived.
"We've never been for the development, but we could see that it was going to come. Now that it's happening, though, it is still a shock," said Eloise Woodfield, 64, who was born on the Clarksburg farm where she and her husband, Thomas "Tucky" Woodfield, still live. The new Town Center development is just several fields from the Woodfields' 66 acres. The farm has been in the family since 1753.
Newcomer Dave Brennan said: "I've never seen this level of growth in one town. It's quite astonishing."
Brennan moved from Massachusetts to Clarksburg to be close to his job. But he noted that he specifically chose a house in a small subdivision, backing up to woods that can't be bulldozed, because he didn't want to be in a huge construction zone.
He says now, though, that the roads and even the planned schools seem to be at risk of overcrowding before they're complete.
Brennan said he doubts that "anybody here is prepared for this amount of change."
Learning From Sprawl
Montgomery County's planners first envisioned major development for Clarksburg more than 40 years ago, in the original "wedges and corridors" plan for the Washington region, which concentrated growth in the region along the major highways around the District.
Later, in 1968, Montgomery County spelled out how it wanted to transform Clarksburg into a bustling city of 48,000, following the path of Rockville, Gaithersburg and Germantown
In the 1990s, though, the county adopted a different vision for what planners said would be the county's "final frontier," "the last bead on the I-270 necklace." Learning from the sprawl in Germantown and Gaithersburg, and decisions by builders in those areas to construct neighborhood after neighborhood of apartments and townhouses when the economy sank, the planners and the townsfolk of Clarksburg labored to require more-varied housing, and more single-family houses.
Old-timers seem pleased by the way the first piece of the puzzle, Clarksburg Town Center, has taken shape.
Five builders have been working in the Town Center project over the past three years. Since 2001, about 400 homes in that division have been sold. About 250 families have moved in, according to representatives of the current developer, Newland Communities.
Newland came on the scene only recently. The project was initiated by Terrabrook, a Dallas-based subsidiary of Westbrook Partners known for designing Reston Town Center. Last October, Terrabrook sold its holdings in Clarksburg as well as 20 other master-planned communities to Newland, its California-based rival.
"They've worked with us and they've helped with the events we've planned," Clarksburg native Eloise Woodfield said of Newland. "We haven't seen a change. . . . And we're looking to them to set the tone for the rest of them."
She said, "We didn't want to see the matchbox stuff, all those townhouses piled up one development after another. And the housing that we're seeing so far in the Town Center is really showing the flavor of Clarksburg."
Said Joanne Woodson, a long-time friend of the Woodfields: "The main thing we said was that we did not want to see Clarksburg become another Germantown."
Preserving the Past
These days, Woodson and the Woodfields are focused on documenting and preserving Clarksburg's historic features. Their goal is to celebrate what they call Clarksburg's "illustrious past" and to share that with the newcomers.
As key members of the local historical society, the trio helped put together a 250th-anniversary event two years ago and earlier this month organized the first Clarksburg Day. Despite heavy rains, the event went on, with costumed residents manning historical and archaeological exhibits inside and around the elementary school, puppet shows, entertainment and a moon bounce.
The longtime residents say they relish what's left of the town's historic structures, such as the two-room 1909 schoolhouse that the county threatened to demolish in 1972 and the few main street family homes and businesses that have survived from the late 1700s, mid-1800s and early 1900s.
They also lament what's gone and what's going. "Once we knew that it was drastically changing for sure, we took a lot of pictures," Eloise Woodfield said.
While the sheer volume of development might be the most striking thing about Clarksburg, the prices these new homes command can also inspire awe.
Some of the first large, new single-family houses in Clarksburg Town Center are selling for $250,000 more than similar ones would have cost two years ago, Newland Communities representatives said. Condos in the various new developments now routinely start in the mid-$200,000s, townhouses in the low $400,000s and single-family houses in the $500s and up. At least one single-family house in the Town Center sold recently for more than $730,000.
"It is unbelievable," said Mary Batkin, sales and marketing project manager for Summerfield Crossing, a 208-acre development by Pulte Homes Inc. "This was all just farmland until so recently."
But Batkin and others say there's really no place else in Montgomery County to build the large houses, townhouses and condos that many buyers want today. The down-county areas are all built out.
With prices for condos in the close-in Wheaton area reaching the mid-$600,000s, Clarksburg is now offering what has to be considered the "affordable housing" in the county, said Chuck Covell of the Bozzuto Group, which is building condos in the Town Center project.
New townhouses across Clarksburg generally offer about 2,400 square feet of space and the single-family houses have from 2,600 to 3,000 square feet. The condos are also spacious, developers said.
While the pace of construction remains faster in Loudoun and Prince William counties, Clarksburg is catching up, said Dave Flanagan, president of Elm Street Development, the company behind the 2,663-unit Clarksburg Village, where sales will begin this summer. He predicts Clarksburg will soon double its pace, from about 400 houses a year to about 1,000.
"The demand is there," Flanagan said.
The future promises even more building. Groundbreaking for Cabin Branch, the first development approved on the west side of I-270, is set for late 2005 or early 2006. That adds another 1,900 houses, townhouses and condos, plus 500 senior units and a 2.4 million-square-foot commercial and retail section.
For newcomer Terrie Reed, though, development can't come fast enough.
Reed, a government worker who moved to the Town Center from a townhouse in Gaithersburg, is pleased with how the value of her home has increased, and she appreciates that a bus now stops a block from her house, connecting to Germantown. But she yearns for public services.
"We've been here two years and my [teenage] kids don't have anywhere to play," she said. "That's been frustrating. We kind of expected a swimming pool early on, but the last I heard it would be ready in August."
She said, "I know it just takes patience. And I think knowing that you've gotten in on the ground floor helps. . . . But we just want a grocery store."