A wooded area at the edge of a sprawling Pikesville cemetery becomes the site of a proposed townhouse community.
In Towson, developers seeking to expand a retail complex add a wrinkle that its neighbors don't like: plans for a 600-bed college dormitory.
And in Bowleys Quarters, the parking lot behind an aging strip mall is staked out for a new Wal-Mart.
All were proposed in Baltimore County, and all were allowed to move forward - without a requirement for public hearings.
They were instead granted "exemptions" to the full review process by the county's Development Review Committee.
County officials say the panel acts as a sort of traffic officer, guiding projects through the county's labyrinthine development review process. But some residents charge that it has become an all-too-common stop for developers to sidestep community opposition to their plans.
Almost every commercial project in the county seemingly receives exemptions to public hearing requirements, said J. Carroll Holzer, a lawyer who frequently represents community associations in land-use fights. "I think that's a huge abuse," he said.
Berchie Lee Manley, a former County Council member and a community activist in Catonsville, said the DRC has become too powerful, and the review process should be revamped.
"It's a part of the executive branch without any guidelines, without any oversight," she said. "There's a serious problem with the DRC and how it is now functioning."
The central criticism of the DRC was highlighted earlier this year in a case involving plans to construct an office building on land now occupied by a 19th-century house. The DRC ruled that the plans did not require a community meeting because the new house would be a "refinement," or a relatively insignificant change to the previously approved development plan for the property, a retirement campus in Catonsville.
Residents opposed the ruling, and the county's Board of Appeals overturned the decision, agreeing that the DRC was wrong to consider the new building a minor change. Critics say the case is an example of how developers are able to sidestep requirements for community meetings, even for projects as large as a big-box store.
County officials say the panel closely follows the law that requires them to grant the exemptions. Even large buildings can be considered insignificant additions, legally, if they have similar uses as other buildings on the property, they say.
And there are myriad other small-scale projects, such as the addition to a store and some property-boundary adjustments, that are inconsequential, county officials say.
"If you had a community hearing on everything that came before the DRC, the county would come to a standstill," said Donald T. Rascoe, a county development manager who for years chaired the DRC.
Officials say developers often volunteer to hold community meetings, even when they receive exemptions. And they point out that DRC decisions may be appealed through the county Board of Appeals.
But critics say it is important for the county to require community meetings because they allow residents to learn what's being built in their neighborhood and to voice concerns about traffic, schools and the environment.
The DRC process "pretty much takes the community out of the picture," said Alan Zukerberg, an activist from Pikesville. "They're left to basically complaining to their council person, and hope that they're council person can play games."
County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said he is studying the issue and looking at whether the process needs to be changed. Zukerberg said he is working with administration officials on setting up a meeting to discuss whether standards for allowing exemptions should be tightened.
The DRC is not the only panel in the region that reviews requests for amendments to existing plans.
In Baltimore City, the Site Plan Review Committee, a consortium of government officials, performs a similar function, a planning official there said. Howard County has the Subdivision Review Committee.
The DRC was created in the early 1990s to make some administrative decisions open to the public, officials say. It consists of an official from each of the five county agencies that review development proposals.
They meet Monday afternoons in a cramped conference room in Towson. Members sit around a long table, and often hold several conversations at once as they pore over maps and question engineers and lawyers standing behind them.
Residents are allowed to watch the meetings from chairs along the walls. Because the meeting is not a "hearing," they are only supposed to watch, though Rascoe said the DRC lets residents speak up if they want.
No minutes are taken. Neither are votes.
Walt Smith, a development manager who has chaired the panel for several months, typically asks members for their thoughts and then decides whether to grant an exemption. He says he will often go on a member's advice.
Proposals that receive exemptions are studied by county agencies for effects on roads, schools, public utilities and the environment, Smith said.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, the DRC considered more than 460 requests for exemptions.
The most controversial decisions typically involve "refinements," defined by a county policy manual as "slight, minor, or insignificant changes to an approved plan."
A Wal-Mart on land now occupied by a parking lot behind the Carroll Island Plaza in Bowleys Quarters? A refinement, the DRC ruled.
A large addition to Towson Town Center, with shops and restaurants with outdoor entrances? A refinement.
The 600-bed dormitory proposed for just up the hill, part of a large retail development known as Towson Circle III, was pulled off the table in 2005, but not before the DRC ruled that the project represented an amendment to the existing mall plan and did not require a public meeting. Yesterday, the developers of that project were granted approval by the DRC to move forward on their ninth refinement to the plan: one that includes a 2,000-seat movie complex, shops and restaurants.
"They're allowed to proceed with these changes under the guise of a minor refinement, when in reality these changes are not minor at all," said Steve Whisler, a community activist in Catonsville. "These are major material things that affect property values."
Last year, the Charlestown retirement community in the southwestern part of the county applied for an exemption as part of its plan to build a 40,000- square-foot office building on land that is now occupied by a 19th-century house. Though the property owner had to get approval from county officials for the demolition of the house, the DRC ruled that adding an office building on the campus would be an insignificant change.
A neighborhood of single-family houses sits yards away from the proposed site of the building.
Smith, the current DRC chairman, pointed out that office buildings are located throughout the sprawling campus.
"They don't build everything at once. They grow, and that's what really constitutes refinements," Smith said.
Several years ago, the DRC allowed a landowner to carve out a lot in a wooded area next to Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville. The "lot-line adjustment" allowed a developer to move forward with plans to build 56 high-end townhouses for the land. The plans are under appeal in court.
Rascoe, the former DRC chair, said terms like "refinement" and "lot-line adjustment" have no clear definitions - and shouldn't.
Every case is unique, he said, and it would be impossible to clearly define terms. "It's kind of a, 'Show me and I'll tell you,'" Rascoe said. "This is all up for interpretation."
But the perception among many community activists is that the DRC stretches definitions to accommodate developers.
"The DRC has been so corrupted and prostituted and infected and tainted that there is no process," said Donna Spicer, a community activist and a frequent critic of the county's development process.
She and other activists point to projects that repeatedly come before the DRC, receiving multiple exemptions. They say projects often change drastically over time while never having to be presented to the public. On a recent Monday, one project that came before the DRC had undergone 11 refinements.
Officials say requiring more public meetings would slow down economic development.
Most commercial projects that come before the DRC are part of the revitalization of older neighborhoods, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county's planning director. "They're basically good contributors, and they're meeting standards," he said.
Representatives for developers say an exemption can save months of work and thousands of dollars.
"It's time. That's the big issue," said John B. Gontrum, a lawyer for Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, which represents developers in Baltimore County.
He and county officials say developers often hold public meetings voluntarily to avoid community uproar. The developers of Towson Circle III did so for the latest proposal.
Critics like Zukerberg, Spicer and Whisler say they want clearer definitions of terms such as refinements - a change that officials say would have to be enacted through legislation.
Keller, the planning director, said officials are open to changes. He said the county is constantly considering which projects merit additional scrutiny.
"That's the fine-tuning of the system that we're constantly doing," he said.
Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.