With groundbreaking ceremonies just a week away, organized opposition to the Arundel Mills megamall near Baltimore-Washington International Airport has emerged for the first time. Foes of the project are scrambling to convince elected officials that many local residents object to the proposed 200-store complex, concerned that the project will damage valuable wetlands on the site and snarl area traffic.

"Reality hit home," said Gary Mauler, one of the founding members of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, a new group seeking to control growth in western Anne Arundel County. "People started saying, 'I'm not going to be able to sell my house; I'm not going to be able get out of my driveway.' "

The project's developer, the Mills Corporation of Arlington, plans to include such features as batting cages and a skateboard facility, creating what it calls a "shoppertainment" experience that will draw consumers and tourists from 100 miles away. The company's Potomac Mills mall south of Washington has become the most-visited tourist attraction in Virginia.

A second opposition group, Citizens for Better Landscapes, persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to hold a hearing in Harmans on June 17 to discuss the environmental impact of the project. Some 250 people showed up, many of them voicing concerns about the effect the mall would have on traffic and wetlands.

"When we saw all those people at the meeting in June, we realized that no one had ever debated this project in public," said Meredith Lathbury, one of the organizers of Citizens for Better Landscapes. "For such a massive development, that is just an aberration of the democratic system," she said.

The project's supporters disagree. "This is not a project that has been sprung on the community," said Bill Badger, vice president of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation.

"The Mills Corporation has gone out into the community and talked to people to figure out what their concerns were and what they would like to see. They did their homework," Badger said.

In 1998, two unanimous votes by the Anne Arundel County Council aided the developers. A zoning change permitted developers to bypass the usual public hearing, and the council created a tax increment district to pay for $28 million in bonds to improve roads near the mall.

During her campaign for county executive, Janet S. Owens (D) occasionally criticized the council's efforts to speed up the approval process. But since winning an upset victory last November, Owens has consistently voiced strong support for the project. A spokesman for the Mills Corp. says that Owens and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) will speak at the July 15th groundbreaking ceremony.

Opponents hope that before then Owens and other elected officials will be convinced there is significant public opposition to the project. Alvira Miller, of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Development, says the group has gathered more than 860 signatures on petitions against the mall that will be delivered to the county executive this week.

Mall critics, fearful that construction will destroy wetlands along nearby Piney Run, also hope that an environmental assessment, now being prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers, will strengthen their case when it is released later this summer.

At the June hearing, Mills officials said they had worked to reduce the area of wetlands that would be affected by the project from 5 acres to 1.39 acres. Twenty-nine of the 33 acres of wetlands on the 393.4-acre site will be preserved, they said.

The Corps is expected to decide in the next month whether, in addition to the environmental assessment, a more detailed environmental impact statement is required. If it is, the Corps will invite public comment, a move that may delay approval for construction.

The county already has issued what is known as a Phase I grading permit to the Mills Corp., allowing work crews to bulldoze areas where the company plans to erect mall buildings, according to John Morris, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement. The company's plans call for clearing 231 acres of forest, while preserving 110 acres under permanent or temporary easements, Morris said. The county will not issue grading permits for the rest of the site, which included the wetlands areas, until state and federal officials approve.

While opponents of Arundel Mills predict the project will cause massive traffic jams around the area, a state transportation official says two planned improvements to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway will accommodate the influx of shoppers.

"The widening of the parkway from two lanes to three lanes and the construction of a new interchange between Highway 100 and Highway 175 should be able to handle the increase in traffic," said Neil Pedersen, planning director for the State Highway Administration.

Opponents say their belated start only makes them more determined more to act.

"Is it too late?" Mauler asked. "It's never too late to try. My feeling is that we've just begun the process."