Four years ago, the families of the Beth Emeth congregation paid $300 each in hopes that construction would begin within 18 months on their new $600,000 synagogue in Fairfax County. They are still waiting for the county's bureaucracy to approve the project.

The synagogue's paper work is treated in the county government as if it were a commercial project. While waiting for action, members of the congregation have watched heavyweight developers zip through a priority processing procedure that allows expensive commercial and industrial construction to cut to the head of the line. However, only developments costing more than $25 million qualify for the fast track.

"This is a way of telling the world that they don't want the small-strip shopping centers or the small office buildings. Twenty-five million dollars is the ticket to get a quicker review," said Frank Schnidman, who specializes in the development permit process at Florida Atlantic University's Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems in Fort Lauderdale.

Fairfax officials concede as much about the policy. "Part of the county strategy is to go after high-flight development," said Claude Cooper, who directs the county's Department of Environmental Management, which processes site plan applications. "The faster the development takes place, the faster the {tax} assessment can be levied."

But at a time when economic growth has made Fairfax one of the most prosperous areas in the nation, some say the county policy raises questions about fairness and whether bigger development is necessarily better.

"Everybody likes big business, but small guys like business also . . . . It's totally unfair to the smaller cases," said Bill Lauer, vice president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Association of Office and Industrial Parks.

Wooing desirable businesses with preferential treatment in approval of site plans and other necessary permits is not uncommon, but Fairfax's $25 million starting gate is the highest in the Washington area and most parts of the country, according to planners and other experts.

In Montgomery County, "We distinctly take the opposite view," said Douglas Alexander, chief of the urban design division for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which processes site plans and zoning and building permit applications. "It's a question of equity . . . . Once they get here, they don't get any special procedural treatment."

In Prince George's County, officials evaluate projects based on a host of "qualitative" factors before accepting them for a priority list that clears the way for expedited permit processing. "There's more to it than just deciding somebody is going to spend a lot of money in your county," said the county's zoning division chief, Dale Hutchison.

Locally, Prince William County perhaps comes closest to Fairfax's policy. Officials there give priority processing to projects costing more than $8 million, but they said the county considers other factors as well in deciding whether the project will enhance the county's tax base.

On two occasions, the county accepted projects under $8 million for priority processing after deciding that they would be good for the county, said Rick Lawson, director of Prince William's Department of Development Administration.

In Loudoun County, a program of fast-tracking developments stopped after special treatment was given to Xerox Corp., which was unable to take advantage of it because of internal problems, a county official said.

"It gave fast-tracking a bad name," said county Supervisor James F. Brownell. "We made a conscious decision that we weren't going to fast-track anybody.

"You fast-track the big boys, and what are you going to do to the small guys, kick them aside? We've tried to step up all applications."

The processing of a site plan application is one in a series of routine steps that any commercial or industrial project must undergo before a local government will approve the plans for a building.

Developers say priority treatment can reduce by as much as six months Fairfax County's review of proposed projects. Developers have been unhappy about delays and backlogs in the review of their plans by Fairfax, which has had a major construction boom.

In some cases, priority processing permits buildings to start going up before the county gives final approval for the site, county officials said.

In at least one instance, an official said, the finishing touches were being put on a newly erected office building before the county gave its final go-ahead on the site plan.

Meanwhile, smaller developments wait their turn in a thick pile of applications, sometimes while interest rates on borrowed capital rise and many months pass.

Builders have been waiting as much as 16 months for their site plans to be reviewed, but the process should take about 60 days, according to Michael P. Forbes, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, which has discussed the issue with county officials.

"It's a nagging problem. We're trying to find some medium ground here," Forbes said.

Meanwhile, the Beth Emeth congregation is "just a part of the queue," said Ira Grossman, the congregation's building chairman, who estimated that delays in the construction project will add $100,000 to its cost. The congregation officially filed its site plan with the county in April 1984.

Frustrated by the delays, the congregation hired former county supervisor Marie Travesky at $25 an hour "to use her political influence" to guide it through the labyrinth of county regulations, permits and applications, Grossman said.

The priority processing procedure was introduced in 1978 as a way to lure corporate America to a sleepy bedroom community overshadowed by the District of Columbia. By speeding up the paper work so businesses could begin construction more quickly, officials figured to increase the corporate tax base and lower the tax burden on residents.

They were successful. At first, businesses with an assessed real estate value of $1 million got preferential treatment; then the cutoff became $5 million. But with an average of 65 $5 million projects a year qualifying, county officials decided last fall that it was time to up the ante to $25 million. That figure went into effect in January.

"We were getting deluged" with project proposals, said Cooper. "You have to have some criteria, and you have to draw the line somewhere."

However, even the president of Hazel/Peterson Cos. -- one of Northern Virginia's largest developers, which this spring had two projects qualify for priority treatment -- has reservations about the policy.

"It doesn't address the main need . . . which is to make companies come to Fairfax in preference of other jurisdictions and to encourage companies to stay," said Jim Todd.

Todd said that other standards, besides dollar value, should be considered so that smaller companies will not be shut out.

One such company could have been Datatel, a small Alexandria firm that develops computer systems for colleges and universities.

Datatel, which is relocating its headquarters and 100 employes into Hazel/Peterson's Fair Lakes office park, qualified for priority processing because it submitted its plans for a $10 million project in December, before the $25 million threshold kicked in.

Priority processing "saved us," said Datatel President Tom Davidson, who was worried that the usual processing delay of about six months and an expiring lease on the firm's current building would find employes without a place to work.

"If we hadn't had what we had, it would have been horrible for us," Davidson said.

Still, the Datatel president said the difficulty in obtaining permits to begin work on his new headquarters in Fairfax is an experience he will never forget.

"I don't think there's anything they can do to make it more difficult," Davidson said. "Our headquarters is moving to Fairfax; you'd think they'd be interested . . . . Apparently, they are not interested in a project this size."

While Fairfax has a formal policy on priority processing, some local governments try to coax desirable developments their way through less formal means, according to experts.

"It's like art. You know it when you see it," said Tom Smith, assistant research director of the American Planning Association in Chicago. "They'll tell you when they like you."

In Fairfax, officials said the $25 million policy is too new for its effectiveness to be gauged. So far this year, priority treatment has been formally requested for six projects, and all but one have qualified.

Merrifield Place, a six-building office development, was rejected because county officials insist that a single building must be valued at more than $25 million. The six buildings of Merrifield Place had a price tag of $26 million combined.

Angered by the rejection that an owner said would lead to a four-month lag in the development race, the Merrifield Place project engineer, George Kovats, said of Fairfax County, "It's like a kingdom. There's no justice."