Since PUD rules first appeared in the County Code in the 1970s, they've been revised again and again. The tract size has been cut in several steps from 250 acres to no minimum at all, and the role of public hearings and of several county departments in the process has been adjusted.

The last major change, enacted by the County Council last year, reversed a revision made in 2004, shifting the power to approve projects from the Planning Board to the hearing officer, where it was before. The new rules also require postings on land where a PUD is proposed and bar the developments outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line. The line, established in 1967, marks the boundary where public water and sewer services end, separating intensely developed and more rural areas.

Opposing views

Now, amid the Thistle Landing argument, Quirk and Councilman David Marks, a Republican from District 5, are saying that maybe it's time for further adjustments.

What's the trouble with PUDs?

County planners say nothing that isn't usually worked out in discussions between planning staff and developers after council approval. They say the approach serves an important purpose, especially with greater focus on redeveloping older suburbs.

"The zoning standard has to fit all" situations, said county Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale. "But that's not how life works."

She said the PUD "allows you to have this flexibility. … It really offers a significant advantage for higher quality development."

Many community activists have a different view. Their critique was summed up in a commentary published early this year in The Baltimore Sun by Alan P. Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville Communities Corp. He argued that the law gives developers an advantage at the expense of communities.

He wrote that there's too much room for interpretation in defining "community benefit," especially as the decision is now ultimately in the hands of an administrative law judge, or hearing officer, "who was appointed by the county executive. With a history of Baltimore County executives being developer friendly, hearing officers will not have to exert much effort to define a 'community benefit' in a minimally, pro-developer manner."

He wrote that "we have a mess in this county resulting from such discretion." When asked in an interview to name a PUD that seemed particularly damaging to a neighborhood, he could not point to a specific case.

His point about the history of county executives shows that the argument about PUDs unfolds amid suspicion about relationships between elected officials and their political contributors, many of whom are developers, their lawyers and relatives.

Allen Robertson, vice president of the Bowleys Quarters Community Association, which is opposed to the Galloway Creek PUD, notes that the project was rejected by the Board of Appeals in 2009.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr., through the county Office of Law, then took the unusual step of filing a motion to intervene in the case. The motion argued that the Board of Appeals erred in procedure and rather than reject the PUD could send it to the Zoning Commissioner for a hearing. That brought the project back to life.

The county attorney's motion said the Office of Law "does not seek to intervene to advocate on behalf of either" side in the case. Robertson was not convinced.

"It sure looks like a stacked deck to me," Robertson said. He contends that the proposal for 36 waterfront condominiums at what is now a marina would set a precedent that could eventually crowd the area with up to 893 homes at 13 marinas under PUD rules. Depending on the interpretation of density limits, conventional zoning would allow about 260 homes.

A frequent critic of the PUD approach, Robertson said he was happy with the recent changes but would like to see an acreage minimum put back into the law.

Quirk insists that his decision to revoke a PUD supported by his predecessor, Democrat Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, represents an effort to protect the "integrity of the process" by upholding quality development.

Quirk said the developer is not offering much of a community benefit, as the county needs more jobs, not more workforce housing, and that the project is flawed because of the characteristics of the land. His dim view of Thistle Landing is supported in a planning staff report that notes a lack of information on standards of quality, the steep slope and nearness to environmentally sensitive land. The report said the design "is not of a quality that is harmonious with or complements sound planning principles."

While Quirk believes the project is flawed and the planning staff knows it, he still thought the proposal should be stopped before a full review. He said that decision does not amount to a no-confidence vote in the ability of regulatory agencies to stop a bad project, but he acknowledged, "I could see how some community activists might be led to that conclusion."