Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, often hears citizens complain that they feel powerless in the face of rapid development.
But starting tonight at Centennial High School, residents will have a chance to speak their minds -- and influence the county's long-term policies -- at five community forums on the Howard County General Plan, a document that will serve as the county's blueprint for growth and development over the next 20 years.
Rutter said the plan, being discussed at public meetings over the next two weeks, attempts to answer two basic questions: "What is the quality of life in Howard County that we want to embrace? And what is it that we value most?"
Although it sounds abstract, Rutter said, the General Plan is the foundation on which growth in the county will take place.
It will determine whether western Howard County will retain its rural flavor, or whether the county will permit more development there.
It will determine the future of run-down commercial strips such as U.S. 1 and U.S. 40, and the future of older residential neighborhoods with declining property values and school test scores.
It will determine whether county-owned open space should be left alone, for conservation, or developed into tennis courts and ball fields.
And it will establish official housing, population and employment forecasts to be used by county and state agencies in defining the county's needs and budget priorities.
For all those reasons, Kevin Doyle, president of the Elkridge Community Association, is encouraging members of his group to attend the public meetings. He said his community is particularly interested in plans for the revitalization of U.S. 1.
"We think it's imperative that people come," he said. "I think it's important that people realize this is really the blueprint for how things will go in this county for the next 10 or 20 years, and once the train is in motion it's a little hard to slow it down."
Rutter said the 2000 General Plan will be different from the 1990 General Plan in one major way: less emphasis on growth and more on revitalization of older communities.
"Ten years ago, growth was really the issue, and everybody understood that was the issue," Rutter said. "It wasn't a debate about what is important to you today. Everybody knew what was important.
"But community planning and sustainability can take a whole lot of different directions, and that's where it's critical we get as much input from the people in these various communities as to how to approach it."
Other topics in the new General Plan:
The transition from three decades of strong growth to a slower pace that reflects a diminishing supply of undeveloped land.
New targets for housing and employment growth.
Reassessing goals for preservation of agricultural and environmental resources.
A summary of suggestions for the General Plan update is available on the county's Web page at www.co.ho.md.us, at county library branches and in the Department of Planning and Zoning, on the first floor of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Rutter called the summary "a skeleton to the plan, with just a little bit of flesh on it as to what the key points are."
After the five community forums, which end March 15, the Planning Department will write a draft of the General Plan, Rutter said, and hold a public hearing on the draft from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. April 25 in the Banneker Room of the Howard Building.
Rutter said he wants as much citizen input as possible.
"This is a really good opportunity to influence the direction of the plan," he said. "What I'm looking to hear is what is the public's perception of the issues that are out there. And even if I disagree with your comment about what we should be doing, it gives me an opportunity to better get out the facts."
Sally Bright, an Ellicott City activist, said it is important for people to start paying attention to the General Plan, while they have the ability to influence the outcome.
"Once the General Plan is set, they pretty much go by that," she said. "If you miss out, that's it for 10 years, so I really suggest that people pay attention."
Meeting schedule on the Howard County General Plan. All meetings begin at 7 p.m. and run until 10: 30 p.m.
Today: Centennial High School Cafeteria, 4300 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City.
Monday: Glenelg High School Auditorium, 14025 Burnt Woods Road, Glenelg.
March 8: Long Reach High School Auditorium, 6101 Old Dobbin Lane, Columbia.
March 13: Hammond High School Auditorium, 8800 Guilford Road, Columbia.
March 15: Elkridge Fire Station Fire Banquet Hall, 6275 Old Washington Blvd., Elkridge.