Twenty-five years ago, when John Novotny and his wife, Sue, were house hunting, they were looking for a classic slice of suburbia: more room for their young children, access to good schools and an easy commute to the District. But the Novotnys were also seeking the kind of safe, stable neighborhood they had when they were children, a place where the kids could roam the streets and play with friends.
The Novotnys found it in Laurel Branch, a subdivision just inside Charles County. At the time, the neighborhood was one of the first to be constructed outside the booming Waldorf-St. Charles area on what was a two-lane country road, then called Route 228.
“We used to call [Laurel Branch] Oxon Hill South,” John Novotny recalled, remembering the many residents from Prince George’s County who moved to Laurel Branch back then.
Years later, dozens of subdivisions have sprouted throughout the region, and Route 228 was turned into a four-lane commuter highway, rerouted and extended to Route 210 to link Charles and Prince George’s. The rush-hour traffic now bypasses the neighborhood, but longtime residents say that Laurel Branch’s convenience remains a plus, and the draw of family and community remains strong.
On a recent Saturday, for example, John Novotny, 60, was getting ready to help one of his sons, who lives in nearby Bryans Road, with home projects. Sue, 61, was playing with her granddaughter, Cameron, 2. “One thing that keeps us here is family,” John Novotny said.
In those early years in Laurel Branch, there was plenty for the Novotny family to do. As the two Novotny boys grew older, they played baseball and soccer with the Southern Maryland Youth Organization, joined Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and were active in the local schools.
Over the years, the Novotnys have grown comfortable with their two-story home. “We’ve done some upgrades we couldn’t afford to do when we first moved in,” said John Novotny, who enjoys spending time in his backyard shop.
The Novotnys’ home borders one of two wooded tracts owned by the neighborhood homeowners association. The tracts, about seven and 13 acres, serve as a common area and will not be developed, John Novotny said.
“It gives it a nice country feel with the mature trees behind us,” Sue Novotny said.
Another longtime resident, Steve Bowie, moved from another house in Laurel Branch, in part so he could live in a home that backed onto one of the wooded areas. Bowie, 47, worked in the construction business when he bought his first Laurel Branch home. The location provided easy access to job sites in other Washington area neighborhoods. But the commute was much slower along narrow two-lane roads before Route 228 was extended to Route 210 around 1995. The four-lane highway opened about five years later.
Bowie has since switched jobs, but he stayed put and serves with Novotny on the homeowners association board of directors. He said several people he went to school with at Lackey High School in Charles are now in the neighborhood.
“You meet new people, and you get back in touch with some old ones,” he said.
Residents credit the primary original builder, Mil-Mar & Sons, with retaining many of the mature trees on the lots in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was constructing many of the Colonials, Cape Cods and split-foyers seen today.
Mike Petras, a Laurel Branch resident and an agent with Showcase Real Estate, said the larger lot sizes have also been a draw for residents over the years. “You can’t find too many places now around here where you can get half-acre lots,” Petras said. “The builder really gave the bang for the buck at the time.”
Petras, 55, is another former Prince George’s resident who moved to Charles 20 years ago to raise his family. His children, who were 8 and 10 years old when they moved in, quickly got involved with local sports teams. Petras was active with the Laurel Branch men’s softball team, for which he served a stint as manager.
Petras says his son and daughter still enjoy softball, adding that his daughter plays with several girls she grew up with. “It’s kind of a neat thing,” he said. “Twenty years later, we’re still going out to the games. It’s second and third generations.”
And Laurel Branch remains attractive to young families looking for an established neighborhood. Asking prices in the subdivision, which consists of about 280 single-family houses, typically run from the low $200,000s to the low $300,000s, Petras said. The neighborhood is served by three of Charles’s newest public schools, built in recent years to accommodate the growth in Waldorf’s western subdivisions.
Brian and Jennifer George initially saw Laurel Branch as a place that would be convenient to their jobs in Prince George’s and to their church in Charles. Now they have three children ages 4 and under. Brian George now commutes to the Pentagon for his job — “I’m traveling three hours a day,” he said. But they don’t have any plans to leave because of the community’s welcoming nature.
Their neighbors have taken time to meet and play with their children and pitched in with emergency babysitting when Jennifer was hospitalized. The friendly atmosphere is something that might not be available if they moved elsewhere, the Georges said. “Our mail lady actually gave us Christmas presents,” Jennifer George said.
Between ballet classes, gymnastics, swimming lessons and soccer, older daughters Tirzah, 4, and Keziah, 3, are involved with the community. The family also recently went to a minor league baseball game in Waldorf, complete with a fireworks display.
There’s nothing much within walking distance for Laurel Branch residents, except other houses. The houses are a little older, and smaller, than some of those in surrounding neighborhoods. But residents said the community’s pluses outweigh the minuses, especially because they expected to be driving a lot when they settled in Charles’s outer suburbs.
The Georges like that the neighborhood is quiet and consists of a series of cul-de-sacs that keep traffic at a minimum so the children can play nearby. Laurel Branch is accessed by a single entrance and has only a few main streets. Jennifer George, a native of the Pittsburgh area, says she’s a “city girl” who appreciates being close to the District. She describes Laurel Branch as a “a happy medium.”
“But what’s kept us here is the neighbors and community involvement,” Brian George said.
Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.