HANDOUT PHOTO: Colorful houses and tree-lined streets in Westlake Village. (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal/FTWP) (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal/FTWP/PHOTO BY ANN CAMERON SIEGAL/FTWP)

Even though St. Charles is a sprawling planned community covering about 12 square miles, it’s still easy to find a cozy neighborhood atmosphere there.

Located in Charles County, 11 miles south of the Capital Beltway and just north of La Plata, St. Charles is actually within Waldorf — important to know if you’re using a GPS gadget to find an address. “Waldorf” sometimes gets better results and is the mailing address, even though St. Charles has more than 36,000 residents in the 20602 and 20603 Zip codes.

“Twenty-five percent of Charles County’s residents live in St. Charles,” said Craig Renner, the public relations spokesman for St. Charles Cos., the developer.

Mike Billard, a resident of Smallwood Village since 1988, said: “From a population perspective, the numbers aren’t that huge. They built out, not up, so the sprawling is land-wise.”

“The footprint for today’s St. Charles was set between 1968 and 1972,” said Renner. “As the community builds out, it mirrors the styles and economy of a particular time.”

With half of the planned 25,000 housing units completed, there will eventually be five villages, each consisting of several neighborhoods that place many residents within walking distance of elementary schools, community centers, pools, tennis courts and playgrounds. The design avoids a cookie-cutter look, with setbacks, colors and elevations varying considerably among the homes, which include apartments, townhouses, duplexes and single-family houses.

Helen Goode, a real estate agent with Century 21 who moved to Fairway Village in 1995, said, “Most of St. Charles’ neighborhoods have cul-de-sacs off of one main circle. It promotes a sense of community.” She added: “There are no metropolitan high-rise condo developments here.”

St. Charles was designed as a move-up community. When Billard and his family outgrew their apartment in 1996, they found a townhouse in the same neighborhood so they could still enjoy established friendships and the school they liked.

Most of the new construction is going on south of Billingsley Road. Billard, who works on Capitol Hill and is active on the boards of his neighborhood and village associations, said, “There’s an ongoing effort to make it a more identified community, rather than just separate neighborhoods.”

Toward that end, an existing network of hiking and biking trails ties some communities together, and more trails are in the works. For example, plans call for neighborhoods east of Route 301 to have pathways to Regency Furniture Stadium, home of Southern Maryland’s minor-league baseball team, the Blue Crabs. Crowds for home games average about 4,000, and the stadium is the site of numerous community events, including outdoor movie nights and big-name concerts. Willie Nelson is scheduled to perform June 18.

Attractive open space is key to each village. Dozens of required storm-water management ponds are landscaped with greenery and pathways, turning those utilitarian features into popular community amenities where residents can fish from shore on a catch-and-release basis.

Barbette Scaife has a view of two ponds from her four-bedroom house. “It’s quiet and homey — like a resort,” she said. “It’s different from other parts of Waldorf.”

But with new commercial areas and hundreds of new homes scheduled to be built in the next few years, Scaife admits to having a love-hate relationship with St. Charles. The former Prince George’s County resident said that “we moved here to get away from city tendencies” such as crowding and traffic,. “But you see it coming. Still, it’s a very family-oriented community with good schools and lots of sports.”

Her three children also enjoy a bit of nature just outside their door. As a blue heron stood among the geese and ducks at the edge of one pond, Scaife recounted how a mother duck recently planted herself in the front yard and hatched her ducklings.

The growth in St. Charles, however, has put a strain on the school population. Helen Goode, who serves on the Fairway Village board, said, “It’s growing faster than we’re building,” noting the middle and high schools are at capacity. Katie O’Malley-Simpson, spokeswoman for the Charles County school system, said the board has delayed opening a new high school until August 2014 for financial reasons.

For active adults over 55, the Heritage neighborhood in Fairway Village offers a variety of homes with first-floor living near the White Plains golf course. About half of the projected 350 homes there are completed.

Norm Townsend moved to Heritage four years ago from Kansas and, like many of his neighbors, still works full time. The soothing sound of a community pond fountain nearby inspired him to create a simulated beach retreat in his back yard, complete with sand and Adirondack chairs. “Visitors love it,” he said.

St. Charles Towne Center, the regional mall, was renovated In 2007. The Wharf at O’Donnell Place has a hotel and waterside dining. A small farmers market and free sunset concerts are held there on Friday evenings from spring to fall, and on every third Friday, local artists exhibit their work.

As catchy melodies rang out from a roving ice cream truck recently, Maridel Thompson spruced up her front yard. She and her husband, David, moved from Fort Washington in 1995 seeking a quieter setting, choosing a neighborhood built about 20 years ago in Westlake Village. “Even though the community has changed a lot,” she said, “prices are still reasonable and we’re close to everything.”

Pointing out homes of original owners who still live on her cul-de-sac, Thompson said, “Once spring comes, when you see one neighbor come out, everyone comes out.”

Siegal is a freelance writer.