Under the late morning sun, Wayne Tart cut the engine on his John Deere riding mower, locked his gaze on the rolling green hills and declared he made the right choice eight years ago when he moved to Glenwood, in western Howard County.
"It's nice and quiet out here," he said. "If there are no stars out, it's dark, because there's no street lights."
Tart, an occupational therapist with Prince George's County public schools, acknowledged that living in Glenwood has tacked 15 minutes each way to his daily commute, compared with his former home in Laurel, in the eastern part of the county. "But it's a relaxing 15 minutes."
His wife, Cindy Tart, drives about 40 minutes each way to her procurement job at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
Tyler, their 15-year-old son, stepped out on the patio with his twin sisters, Megan and Chelsea, 14. "It's kind of quiet," he said, looking up and down the nearly empty street. "I have lots of time to myself to shoot baskets."
Megan said, "I think there are a lot of nice people. There's a lot of sports, like field hockey."
In Glenwood, about 35 miles north of Washington and Silver Spring, the air is sweet, the pace slow and the price of homes high. Asking prices on homes for sale now range from about $500,000 to almost $5 million, with an average asking price of $1.4 million, said Allie Mitchell, an agent at Long & Foster Real Estate's Columbia office.
The prices reflect the overall increase in the Howard County market over the past few years, Mitchell said. In addition to the low interest rates that have fueled a housing boom throughout the entire region, Howard County prices have been further boosted by tight zoning and construction restrictions.
The Glenwood Zip code, 21738, is a place without a physical center. Rather, it's a scattering of upscale subdivisions east and west of Route 97, a road that starts out as Georgia Avenue in the District and connects to Interstate 70 north of Glenwood. In this emerging exurb, large homes are springing up alongside disappearing farmland and historic country churches.
According to the book, "Howard County: A Pictorial History," by Joetta M. Cramm, in 1822 James Matthews and his wife, Kitty, opened a store and post office known as Matthews in the then-rural area. After the Civil War, one of their 12 children, Lycurgus, renamed the hamlet Glenwood. He started private schools, including the now-gone Glenwood Institute. In 1885, yearly tuition for the grammar school was $87, including room and board. The collegiate division cost $95.
There's still not much in the way of commercial development. At the Inwood Village Center, one of only two small strip retail facilities along Route 97, patrons flock to Books With a Past, a used-book outlet. The shelves teem with tomes covering subjects including music, dance, military history and romance; classical music provides a soothing background. Co-owner Mary Alice Schaefer said the store is gaining new fans. "We get people from all over. It's a stopping place for people traveling through or visiting relatives."
Just down the main road, the Glenwood Branch Library also has seen a steady increase in business since it opened in 2000, said one clerk. The branch replaced a tiny storefront version in nearby Lisbon.
On a recent Wednesday, the facility was awash with parents, young children and seniors. All but a few of the computer stations were in use. The picture window at the rear of the room frames an ongoing glimpse of the county-owned lighted athletic fields and park taking shape.
Schaefer, who has lived in Howard County since 1982, and whose children graduated from Glenelg High School, remarked that the area needs a full-service grocery store. Now, the trip is perhaps a dozen miles to shopping in neighboring Montgomery County. "Mount Airy and Olney are closer than Columbia," Schaefer said.
Across the street from Schaefer's business is Glenelg Service Center. Manager Glen Buchanan said he spends his days tinkering with different vehicles, including a wide variety of BMWs, Mercedes and other expensive models. He remembered when he moved there 14 years ago from California, "there was certainly more corn than houses." Now, with development on all sides, he worries that the infrastructure will not be able to support it.
"The schools are overcrowded. . . . We could use a restaurant out here. There are no fast-food places, no hardware stores. We have to go to Route 40 or Clarksville," he said.
"In the morning, most of the traffic is headed south on Route 97, but as the day goes on, traffic is in both directions," Schaefer said. A lot of people live in Carroll County."
Glenwood is emblematic of Howard County's dual identity as both Washington and Baltimore suburb. While Tart heads closer in to the District to work, his neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac, Dean Landis, travels 30 minutes east to Woodlawn, in Baltimore County, and his job as a lawyer at the headquarters of the Social Security Administration.
For Baltimore-bound commuters such as Landis, there's generally a bottleneck at routes 40 and 29 as traffic streams south toward Columbia and then Washington. "But once I get past that, it's okay," Landis said, except when the Baltimore Beltway is backed up.
Landis recalled that he, his wife and their two children were living in a townhouse in Catonsville in 1996 when they decided the $300,000 Colonial in Glenwood offered a lot of extra room. "Luckily, we got in before housing prices went berserk. It's probably at least doubled by now."
Tart said he appreciates the open feel that remains: "We have a fox and lots of groundhogs. We found a snapping turtle in our pool. We took him down to the local park and let him go -- very carefully."
Dean Landis, a Glenwood resident since 1996, can look out his back yard and see a working farm just beyond. The Glenwood Branch Library is a sign of the area's slow modernization. The library, also home to a government center, replaced a storefront version.