Howard County builders and developers are hoping the quiet approach will yield more results in future battles over county growth-management policies than the loud, public protests of a year ago.

Their sign-waving demonstrations and full-page newspaper advertisements of the past might have drawn more attention to the protesters than the opinions they were trying to promote, one prominent builder said.

"You cloud the issue when you become too visible. The more quiet and subdued we are, the better for us," said John Liparini, president of the county's chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

A low-key role is all the more important to the developer community during an election year punctuated by debates over development policies.

Public scrutiny of the development community is in part a reflection of society's increasing interest in people who profited from boom times of the 1980s, said Gordon Bonham, director of the Center for Suburban and Regional Studies at Towson State University.

Like the public's concern over the "junk bond" markets and the savings and loan industry, "there is a perception out there that a lot of people were able to make a lot of money from development without taking a lot of risks," Bonham said.

"I think society as a whole is getting concerned about the interplay between who is gaining from development and who is paying for development," he added.

Members of the development community are finding it more and more difficult to remain in the background. Several civic watchdog groups have surfaced in recent years to keep track of their activities. And many builders and developers play high-profile roles in local politics or community affairs that keep them in the public eye.

Liparini, for instance, is not only a major Howard County developer but he is a member of the county's housing commission and owns the Maryland Bays soccer team. County land-use lawyer James Robert Moxley is director of the Howard County Fair and chairman of the county's farmland preservation program.

Like many developers, real estate entrepreneur Donald R. Reuwer Jr. is a frequent contributor to a variety of social causes, ranging from the local Red Cross chapter to the county's historical society. Most Rouse Co. executives not only live in the town of Columbia that they helped develop, but they often can be found serving on community committees and participating in local events.

The list goes on and on. And development's influence extends to the social fabric of politics as well. Liparini serves on a campaign advisory committee for County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D). So does Moxley; he is also seeking to win a seat on the county's Democratic Central Committee. Reuwer is chairman of a Democratic club representing the County Council's 5th District.

"I do it because I support Democratic candidates -- always have and always will," said Reuwer, a former teacher.

That the development community is active in community affairs is nothing new, and it should come as no surprise. Development is one of Howard County's major industries; two of the county's top 10 employers are development-related firms.

It was when Howard County's building boom began to extend beyond Columbia's planned community borders in the mid-1980s -- and beyond the county's ability to provide the needed infrastructure -- that the residents' sentiment toward the development community began to sour.

"I think they've been given free rein in the county. And like anyone who is given that much power, some, perhaps, have abused it. Whether they'd done it intentionally or not, the effect is the same," said John Taylor, a Republican running for the County Council's 5th District seat.

Taylor's comments reflect a growing concern by area residents over developer influence.

Those perceptions are one reason that County Council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2) is not asking for campaign contributions from the development community. Three other candidates for county office have made similar pledges.

Their stand, however, hasn't stopped other candidates from accepting developer money. Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) said about 22 percent of his contributions come from the development community. And development-related contributions appear on the campaign finance forms of other council candidates this year. Bobo challenger Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, even ran an advertisement in a local newspaper this week featuring the endorsement of Larry Kinsey, a local builder.

"There's a big difference between making a claim that a public official is being influenced and substantiating it," Bobo said, in defending her decision to accept developer contributions. "If anything, I think developers have less influence in the county than they once had . . . . Because of some of the actions we have taken, some developers have chosen not to get involved in my campaign this year."

Many developers said the accusations of influence-peddling smack of McCarthyism.

"I do have a problem with the demagoguery of the John Taylors of the world," Reuwer said. "It's real frightening how they inflame people with information."

Reuwer claims he got a "bum rap" for once offering Bobo the use of his home for a fund-raiser. If that gesture is supposed to show the county executive's favoritism toward developers, Reuwer said, he doesn't see it: "The development industry has been kicked in the head by everything she's done."

Reuwer is referring to Bobo's support of laws that now restrict development on steep slopes and near streams and limit the number of building permits issued during an 18-month period and that would limit development to areas where adequate schools and roads exist.

While he doesn't like all the actions, "I understand why they were done."

Liparini adds: "After the initial shock, I've gotten philosophical {about the development controls}. The county is maturing. Now, it's becoming a more urbanized area."