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Elkridge or Ilchester?

A new community is born.

Mike Ratcliffe creates communities.

Technically, what he does is delineate them, helping establish how places are counted under the decennial Census.

Ratcliffe, a North Laurel resident—never just Laurel, as he’s precise with his place names—works for the Census Bureau, which defines the borders of “census-designated places” (CDPs).

A CDP has firm borders and, short of the legal designation of incorporation, it is frequently the only official recognition of a community outside of the Post Office. It also provides the bureau with units to count.

As the assistant division chief of geocartographic products and criteria, Ratcliffe helps figure out where towns start and stop. This means that he can change maps, how communities are described and perceived. One poorly-thought-out act by the good folks over at the bureau can allow a community-in-name-only to spring up out of nowhere. Maps will no longer reflect reality. (Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!)

During preparations for the 2010 census, Ratcliffe and his crack team of geographers worked with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning in setting up the borders of the county’s CDPs, which is just about every Howard County community you can name.

For 2010, Howard County submitted a new CDP of “Ilchester-Rockburn,” just northwest of Elkridge.

Ilchester hadn’t been defined in previous modern censuses, so it immediately became a point of interest for Ratcliffe. This, he says, is where his work becomes “a little subjective.” He had to determine if a community of Ilchester even existed and, if it did, whether it deserved its own CDP.

Finding a place that’s not on a map can be a difficult thing. Ratcliffe and his colleagues look for the place name actually being used, on businesses and public services. (Think or Columbia Mall.)

For a particularly sticky question, they may actually take a trip to the area to see how residents identify themselves. Indian Springs, in Washington County, MD, presented such a problem—and an opportunity for some quick field research, said Ratcliffe. A few houses that could be seen on satellite pictures had been left out of the borders submitted by the local planning committee. So Ratcliffe drove out there, found a local store, went inside, and asked where he was. "Indian Springs," they said, and Indian Springs it was.

Ilchester hadn’t been seen on census records since the 1870s, said Ratcliffe. Any remaining buildings had been literally wiped off the map by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Wasn’t it really now just a part of Elkridge?

The Census Bureau weighs a lot of factors in determining if a community exists and is wary of simply creating a realtor’s dream designation or merging communities for simplicity’s sake, said Ratcliffe. For example, he pointed to North Potomac as Maryland's “poster child” for naming a place to further marketing purposes. Located in Montgomery County, the community could just as easily have been called “West Rockville,” but then would have lost the cachet of being linked with one of the richest towns in the country. Created in 1988, by 2008 North Potomac was 16th most affluent neighborhood according to Forbes, and named the best wealthiest place to live by Money Magazine. (Are there wealthy places where it's not good to live?)

A community can’t exist just because a handful of people want to redefine themselves, explained Ratcliffe. In 2000, some residents of Scaggsville hoped to remove the “Laurel” from their mailing address. Casting about for something pristine-sounding, they struck upon “Rocky Gorge,” a name that had never really existed before. Both the Post Office and the Census Bureau turned the request down, and Rocky Gorge remains a dream.

Ilchester, though, was another matter. Ratcliffe’s historical research showed residents had given the name as their address in 1870 and 1880. There is an and a . It is an area likely to experience major growth over the next ten years, which means it’s an area both Howard County and the Census Bureau would like to have detailed information on, which creating a CDP allows.

In the end, the Census Bureau created an Ilchester, MD. It remains to be seen if the name catches on, if in a few years at or you’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I live in Ilchester.” After all, they might think they’re still in Elkridge.

TJ Mayotte August 17, 2011 at 11:37 PM
Trevor, the Census Bureau is moving away from hyphenated CDP names, so they decided it would be just "Ilchester." I'll try to get back to you on the official boundaries, but for now, here's the Census data sheet for the area: http://planning.maryland.gov/msdc/census/cen2010/sf1/sumyprof/profile/CDP/cdp_41475.pdf Thanks for the comments!
Adam R August 18, 2011 at 12:57 PM
If the census bureau decide place names why is it still dictated by the USPS where I live? What mail I get comes to 21076 Hanover, MD. I should be annexed with 21075 Elkridge since I live in Howard counrty, not AACO with the other 90% residents of 21076. Takes an act of god to change per my local representatives in Congress.
Nichole Tracht August 18, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Adam...be careful what you wish for! Although you are stuck paying HoCo taxes vs AACo's lower ones, things like car insurance and homeowners insurance rely heavily on your address....since they think you are in Hanover, you might be paying less for your homeowners insurance than those with an Elkridge zip!
TJ Mayotte August 18, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Adam, borders of unincorporated areas are so fluid then can overlap, depending on what organization you're talking about. Mike also described an area north of Savage which is part of the Columbia Association, in the Savage CDP, but has a Jessup mailing address. 3 in 1! Since ZIP codes really only delineate what PO delivers where, they can cross county boundaries (and changing them is really difficult). I find it very interesting how communities are defined, both officially and unofficially, and how residents identify themselves. Thanks for the comments!
Adam R August 20, 2011 at 12:54 PM
Zips code areas are only changed by the Postmaster General, and usually need a push from a local representative. I had some correspondence with then Rep Ben Cardin for District 3 about 5 years ago on the subject obviously to no avail. What I find interesting is if Elkridge ever had a push for incorporation they would need us Hanover folk in the count. Otherwise us Hanover folk have even less of a voice than the rest of Elkridge in Howard County. When I moved here in 1995 Augustine Drive was in Zip 21227 and we had three post office routes in Cranbury Woods. Totally inefficient but that is the USPS. Augustine was moved to 21075 but the rest of the neighborhood remained 21076, and then the developers built another (?) 2000 homes in the area all to be part of the 10% of 21076 zip code who live in Howard County. The other 90% with that zip is in Anne Arundel County. I have no problem with AACO, its just not where I live.

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