If you're planning a new subdivision in Howard County's suburbs, you have to meet the neighbors early on.
Six months into this requirement, residents are giving the concept high marks - but they have found flaws in the notification and scheduling of meetings, which developers must hold before asking permission to build in eastern Howard.
A common complaint is that builders can hold community meetings whenever they feel like it - often in the midmorning on a weekday. Fewer than 40 percent of the meetings have been scheduled at 5 p.m. or later, and only one has been held on a weekend.
"Most people in our community work," said Ken Adams, a research administrator who lives in the Dunloggin neighborhood of Ellicott City. "I can't understand why they can't hold it at a time that's convenient."
Adams missed a meeting this week because he couldn't leave work.
To attend a 10 a.m. meeting in February about an area project, he had to take off a full day. He almost did not go because the plans mailed with the invitation called for just two houses. He is glad he showed up, however, because the developer acknowledged that the plans were for only the first phase.
"The way it's going, they're just wasting everybody's time," Adams said. "I really believe that they ought to put all the cards out on the table."
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, contends that developers nearly always do so, but he agrees that they are not playing nice by holding meetings in the middle of a workday.
"I have warned them to have these [as] late afternoon or early evening meetings," he said. "I have gone on record that if this keeps on happening, there will be legislation."
Some residents think the county's definition of "neighbors" is too narrow, leaving people out of the loop. Developers are required to mail notices of the meetings only to property owners "adjoining" the land to be developed.
Anybody can attend. Not everybody finds out in time.
"I heard about it after the fact," said Ellicott City resident Julie Pacione, 37, who lives on Dunes Drive, an access road for a proposed development. "No one on Dunes Drive was invited. ... I think they need to include everybody affected."
Rutter said development has the greatest impact on next-door neighbors. He pointed out that the planning department also posts the meetings on its Web site, www.co.ho.md.us/PZ/planning.html.
"If you miss the meeting, it's not the end of the world," he said. "The idea is, somebody in the community is finding, before the bulldozers show up, that there's something coming through. This is not your only opportunity to have a conversation with the developer."
County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, thinks complaints about insufficient notice could be solved by requiring builders to post a sign on the property with the meeting time.
"I'm hoping that developers see the value of sharing information with residents," he said. "A lot of residents will look at a plan and say, `Oh - that's not as bad as I thought.'"
What neighbors like about the face time is that they hear what someone wants to build near them before the plans are set.
"I thought it was wonderful," said Kimberly McKay, 34, who lives in a Turf Valley neighborhood where a developer wants to build nine houses. "I grew up in Howard County, so I'm used to the whole development-growth thing, and it was nice to be able to get the factual information about what was going to happen from the builders themselves, instead of from the typical word-of-mouth rumor mill."
Reaction has been generally positive even in neighborhoods where "subdivision" is a bad word.
"This can be an opportunity for the developers and the residents to establish a working relationship instead of a hostile relationship," said Gary Segal, president of the main community association in historic Ellicott City.
R. Jacob Hikmat, vice president of Mildenberg, Boender & Associates, an Ellicott City engineering, planning and surveying company that has held more than a half-dozen meetings for developers, said neighbors have offered helpful advice about potential problems.
"They feel like they have more impact - and they do," he said.