But McLaughlin said there "were good reasons as to why each of the requirements were put in" the process, and large-scale changes are not likely.

Joan Lancos, land-use liaison for the Hickory Ridge Community Association and a longtime observer of Columbia development, said many of the issues people have with the process stem from poor understanding of how it works.

For example, people need to understand that there will be opportunities for public input early on, when developers don't necessarily have a lot of details to share. The process was not created in a vacuum, she said, and its individual steps shouldn't be viewed in one either.

"We went through months of hearings and planning board work sessions and County Council testimony on developing this whole downtown master plan process, and repeatedly through all of that, people said, 'We want input. We want to have a say in every single thing that's going on in the process,'" Lancos said. "This is what people in Howard County wanted, so now that we've got it, we need to sort of just get used to it, understand where we are and ask the right questions."

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

Alan Klein, of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said the process itself is fine. What's at issue, he said, is how it is being applied.

"I think the process, if it's done well, can be appropriate," Klein said. "If it's mishandled, I don't think it will be."

Possible solutions

Developers and consultants said they want to be open with the public. But in some instances in the current process, they have appeared confused about when to share what, just as residents have appeared confused about when to expect what.

The county could take steps to help clear the confusion, Whitcome said, by better defining its expectations.

"I don't think it would hurt for the county to explain to the residents of the county, 'This is what you get at each step in the process,' and it wouldn't hurt for something to be on the website," he said.

McLaughlin said the process puts no restrictions on what developers can share about their projects during the different steps in the process. Still, she said she will consider offering more explicit information on what is to be expected and when.

"I will go back and see what is in the language that we provide to developers as guidance," she said.

Klein said county officials and developers will both have a role to play in ensuring the process serves residents, as it was intended to do.

"A lot of it is going to depend on how the developers and the county handle themselves," he said. "I don't want to say residents start from a position of distrust, but I think residents correctly start from a position of, 'Show me.'"