MORE THAN A HOUSE: Planned Communities Offer Lots of Good Living

Article excerpt

Want to avoid suburban sprawl? Consider living in a planned community. More and more of these communities are sprouting up in the Washington area, while some of the early ones continue to build.

Some of the largest date to the 1960s, including Montgomery Village in Montgomery County; Reston in Fairfax County; Columbia in Howard County, Md., and St. Charles, 20 miles southeast of Washington in Charles County, Md.

The oldest is Greenbelt, which dates to the 1930s, and is in Prince George's County.

The benefits of planned communities are many, proponents say. The homes have a consistent "look," so you won't find a purple house next door to your brick Colonial. Zoning prohibits a hodgepodge of buildings in your neighborhood, such as a gas station plunked down alongside your back yard. Also, there are amenities - which homeowners pay an annual fee to maintain - such as parks, ponds, biking trails, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses and community centers.

"The whole purpose behind master-planned communities is to concentrate growth in certain areas and preserve large tracts of open space," thereby avoiding suburban sprawl, explains Greg TenEyck, vice president of communications at Interstate General Co. (IGC), developer of St. Charles.

In 1968, IGC bought 9,000 acres and began constructing St. Charles in Southern Maryland. It is roughly half complete, with 12,000 homes finished out of a planned total of 24,000. A quarter of the land has been left for open space, including 17 lakes, swimming pools, recreation centers and an 18-hole golf course around the newest neighborhood, Fairway Village.

When housing is built in planned communities, retail and service sectors tend to follow quickly. St. Charles, for example, boasts a major mall at its Town Center.

Homes offered at St. Charles include new single-family houses that start in the $130,000s and town houses that begin in the $110,000 range. IGC-built apartments rent for about $750 a month, says Jay Lilly, manager of L.K. Farrall Ltd. in Waldorf.

To be part of a planned community, homeowners must subscribe to a set of rules. Typically, you may not build an addition to your home or paint it another color without going through an architectural review board. Some critics argue that this represents excessive control by homeowners associations, but advocates say it protects the value of each homeowner's investment.

"The rules are designed to increase home values," Mr. TenEyck says. "Our covenants protect you from having neighbors who leave junk cars on their driveway or who build a chain-link fence in the back yard for their Siberian husky."

In Columbia, these views are echoed by Blaine Milner, a Realtor at RE/MAX Advantage who has lived in the planned community with his family since 1976. "It's a great place to live, work and raise a family," he says.

The community boasts 59,000 jobs - in high-tech, biotech and retail firms - so many residents both live and work in Columbia.

"It's an enlightened community with lots of services," Mr. Milner says. "The school system is excellent."

Developer James Rouse launched the community in 1967. It was 15,000 acres of rural land then, 25 miles from the District and 15 miles from Baltimore.

Today, Columbia is one-third open space, Mr. Milner says, and has 75 miles of jogging and walking paths and several lakes. The housing stock in Columbia runs the gamut from one-bedroom condominiums to large single-family homes, Mr. Milner says. He says town houses range in price from $80,000 to $350,000, while single-family houses go from $125,000 to $1 million. The style tends to be traditional and Colonial.

House hunters can also buy an empty lot and have one of numerous builders construct a home on it. The builders include Columbia Builders, Williamsburg Builders, Patriot and Allen Homes. …