On a three-acre tract of land in suburban Clinton, next to a subdivision of one- and two-story brick homes, a developer wants to build a cluster of small stores.

The residents of Clinton are angry about the developer's plans. When they purchased their homes, the undeveloped land at Piscataway and Windbrook roads was zoned for homes similar to theirs.But two years ago, over their objections, the County Council changed the zoning because it felt the stores were needed, and now the neighborhood may get some unwanted development.

To the angry residents of Clinton, the stores in their future are a good example of how something called the Sectional Map Amendment process robs citizen groups in Prince George's County of what they believe is their right to shape the character of their neighborhoods.

"The end result is not what the people want," said Tom Mero, an engineer who lives in Clinton. "We had a whole lot of opposition to it [the rezoning of the three-acre tract] but it didn't carry a whole lot of weight."

Begun about 10 years ago, the new process was designed to control suburban sprawl. To its critics, however, it gives too much leeway to the County Council over zoning changes in contrast to the old system where an area could not be rezoned for a shopping center, for example, unless a developer could prove that there had been a change in the neighborhood, such as a new highway, that created a need for the new development.

In the past, county residents became adept at showing that there had been no change in their neighborhoods, and thus no grounds for a change in zoning. Now those in Clinton, at least, feel rather defenseless.

"There's no criteria for appropriateness with a Sectional Map Amendment," said Walter H. (Mike) Maloney, a former county attorney. "There's no limitation to what the council can do. It gives the council tremendous power."

But those who favor the Sectional Map Amendment process -- planners, council members, some developers and even some community groups -- say that it is a better system than the old one. The old zoning process, they say, led to suburban sprawl, particularly along routes 1 and 50, because the council had to grant rezonings to developers who could show that there had been changes in the neighborhood. "There was a domino effect in some neighborhoods," said county planner Albert H. Wang. "One developer would get a rezoning and then the developer next door wanted one."

The Sectional Map Amendment process, planners say, will reduce suburban sprawl not only because a change in the neighborhood is no longer grounds for a rezoning, but also because the council now considers all the rezoning petitions for a region of the county at once, instead of considering each rezoning petition separately.

County planners say that the Sectional Map Amendment process also allows the council to reduce sprawl because the council can change the zoning of undeveloped land from, say, commercial to residential, thus preventing any construction of additional stores.

During the last 10 years, the council has rezoned 43 percent of the county's land area, or 134,000 acres, from commercial or apartment use to single-family residential use -- one house per every one, two or five acres, according to county zoning documents. The council has rezoned land from lower to higher densities in a smaller number of cases. For example, during the last 10 years, 522 acres of land that would have been used for single-family homes were rezoned for town houses, and 87,000 acres that were zoned for homes and stores were rezoned for industrial use.

Council members say that they try to consider the viewpoints of residents before granting developers such rezonings. But county residents are unconvinced that their viewpoints will prevail.

In Oxon Hill, for example, residents are worried that the council will rezone undeveloped land along the Potomac, known as Smoot Bay, so that developers can build apartment houses, stores, and restaurants. The residents have spoken against the proposal at work sessions and at public hearings, but it has not done any good. The plan remains on the map.

"The burden," laments Julian Holmes of Oxon Hill, "has shifted from the developer to the residents to show why the plan is wrong."