Two years ago, when developers began building the Seven Oaks community in western Anne Arundel County, the property near the junction of Routes 175 and 32 was mostly woods and farmland.
Last year, trees were cleared on part of the 725-acre tract and roads were built to provide access to the initial home sites.
This year, 281 houses and apartments are in place and occupied, and many more are under construction.
That's how fast the landscape is changing these days in western Anne Arundel County, where three large residential communities are expected to add 12,000 new homes -- with 30,000 residents -- during the 1990s.
Seven Oaks, Piney Orchard and Russett are the names of the three communities under construction within seven miles of each other in the Odenton-Fort Meade area, which county officials have designated a growth area as part of an effort to divert some of the building activity from Annapolis-Parole and other coastal areas.
The three communities are known as Planned Unit Developments or PUDs -- the technical term for large, mixed-use projects whose owners have obtained special county zoning approval to develop land in a more comprehensive way than the typical freestanding subdivision. Each will have between 3,000 and 4,800 residences -- about the size of one of the villages in Columbia.
In a sense, they are the new neighborhoods of the 1990s -- prototypes for development in a region where anti-growth sentiment and uncertain economic conditions are combining to make suburban homebuilding more difficult than ever.
"This is the '90s version of trying to create a desirable neighborhood from scratch," said Gordon C. Berry, an associate of Legg Mason Real Estate Group, which monitors building activity throughout the region. "It's difficult to do. You didn't create Ruxton overnight. Now these are the emerging neighborhoods."
Over the next 10 to 12 years, the three communities are expected to result in a combined investment of more than $2 billion and account for at least half of all homebuilding activity in the western part of the county.
"I don't think they're going to be the only game in town, but they're going to represent a significant supply of land in the Baltimore-Washington corridor," Mr. Berry said. "They're going to exert an influence on the homebuilding business because they have the land and they have the infrastructure."
Besides bringing in new residents, the projects are expected to help transform the image of the Odenton area from a tawdry "Boomtown" of go-go bars and fast-food joints serving Fort Meade to a clean, miniature version of Columbia in adjacent Howard County.
And although there is some concern about how well all three projects will fare in competition with each other, and a lingering -- controversy about how at least one of them ought to take shape, housing industry observers and the developers themselves say each is well-positioned for success even in a stagnant economy.
They point out that all three communities are strategically located between Baltimore and Washington and between Annapolis and Columbia, and that they stand to benefit especially from the restrictions on homebuilding that have been imposed in Howard County.
The communities also are close to job centers such as the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Westinghouse Corp., Goddard Space Flight Center, and the National Security Agency, and have easy access to major roads and the MARC commuter train line.
And they will offer amenities that many smaller subdivisions do not -- from pools, tennis courts and other recreational facilities to convenience shops within walking distance, nature trails and, in one case, even an ice skating arena.
"A PUD has more to offer than an individual subdivision," said Stephen Fleischman, vice president of the Halle Companies, the Silver Spring-based developer of Seven Oaks. "Once the PUD is done you have ball fields, swimming pools, rec centers, tennis courts. It's all planned ahead."
"I don't want to say that smaller subdivisions will go away. There always will be smaller subdivisions," said Joel Mostrom, president of Curtis F. Peterson Inc., the managing general partner of the team building Russett. "But I believe the way the county has legislated the adequate-facilities ordinance, the only proper way to address growth and management in new communities is if you have a development of a size and scale that is able to carry the burden of infrastructure improvements. That's why I believe large-scale PUDs will be the dominant way of developing communities in the future."
Mr. Berry of Legg Mason said all three developers are seeking to take advantage of their key location between Baltimore and Washington.
"The play is the corridor," he said. "It's a response to the growth of the corridor, and the joining of the two metropolitan areas. The land was there. The transportation was there. Anne Arundel County has had more road construction recently than any other county in Maryland, even Montgomery.