Two hours into a Howard County hearing on whether developers would be allowed to transform a Fulton turkey farm into a community of businesses and 1,200 houses, many in the crowd were eager to get on with it.

Debate that night was hung up on whether the development plans had been changed and ought to be refiled, whether the hearing could proceed without a particular staff report, whether daytime hearings were fair and, if not, how to reschedule them.

As citizens shifted in their seats and eyed the wall clock, Zoning Board members, too, were losing patience.

"I have to say that I'm a little frustrated that two hours into this meeting, we haven't gotten to the substance of this hearing," member Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said that night in early September.

Four months later, the Maple Lawn Farms matter has become the longest case ever heard by the county Zoning Board, which comprises members of the Howard County Council. By the end of the year, the hearing had spanned 20 meetings, including one all-day session, totaling some 83 hours. Testimony is expected to continue at least through the end of this month. No one thought it would go on like this, and each side blames the other for delaying the hearing.

Now, some on both sides are wondering whether this proceeding of record length points to larger problems with the hearing system, and they think Howard should look to neighboring counties for ideas about how to do it better.

In other Maryland jurisdictions, including Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, a hearing examiner takes testimony on zoning matters and then makes a decision or submits a report to a decision-making body, usually the county council. Advocates of this system say hearing examiners are better trained to handle legal issues that arise, less subject to political influence and able to keep proceedings on track.

Howard County's system, land use lawyer Thomas Dernoga said, "is a runaway train."

Dernoga occasionally pinch-hits in the Maple Lawn hearings for John Breitenberg, an attorney representing several communities opposed to the project. "It makes no sense that it would take this long," Dernoga said.

The hearing's length has surpassed one for a huge Rouse Co. project that won approval in 1998. That case involved a rezoning request and a development proposal, and its hearings concluded after about 15 nights.

The mother of all Howard zoning cases, the 1965 ruling that carved the town of Columbia out of 13,690 acres, was decided after a single day of testimony.

The Maple Lawn Farms case doesn't involve rezoning of a property. Rather, the Zoning Board is weighing only whether the proposal meets requirements of the existing zoning and whether to approve a preliminary development plan, based on criteria aimed at fostering orderly growth and protecting the environment.

It's partly the criteria that have led to such a long hearing, some said. "There's a lot of gray area," said Greg Fries, chairman of the Southern Howard Land Use Committee, a civic group that opposes the plan.

He and Breitenberg say irrelevant testimony from the applicant, Greenebaum and Rose Associates Inc., went on too long. Developers say Breitenberg's lengthy cross-examinations and redundant testimony from citizens are to blame. The opponents' case is underway now, and resident after resident--about 50 have signed up--testifies about the harm the development would cause the community, how it would crowd roads and schools and how it wouldn't fit in with the area's rural character.

Maureen Kalil, a Highland resident who testified against the project recently, has attended more than half of the meetings. "A Coke and a pack of [crackers] has been dinner some nights because of that, but I just feel very committed to it. Whatever happens, I'll go away knowing that I've done whatever I could possibly do."

Sentiments like that justify the length of the hearing, board member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County) said. "Too many people have the perception that government doesn't listen to them," he said. "A lot of the testimony from the [opponents] right now is redundant, but that person still wants to tell us their position, and I think we need to listen to them."

Project developer Stewart J. Greenebaum said he would have preferred daytime hearings, which other counties hold, to help speed the process, and he thinks the opponents' strategy all along has been to delay, which Breitenberg denies.

"Sometimes when things get out of hand, it does raise questions as to whether the process itself needs modification, but that's not my job," Greenebaum said.

Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter said his office has begun studying whether the county should adopt a review system that relies on a hearing officer. "It's very difficult for elected officials to close down repetitive or irrelevant testimony," he said. "It's much easier for a hearing examiner to sit there as a judge and say, 'This is irrelevant.' "

Breitenberg supports the idea and wants the county to hire a people's counsel, who would serve as an independent public advocate. Montgomery County recently hired a lawyer as the first people's counsel, and Howard County Council members Guzzone and Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) favor doing the same.

Rutter said his department will soon come up with a recommendation on both a people's counsel and a hearing examiner. One or the other might mean an amendment to the county charter, which would require a referendum.

Meanwhile, the hearings continue, and opponents of the Maple Lawn Farms proposal aren't sure what they'll do if they lose. A group of citizens--many of the same opponents in this case--appealed an earlier decision approving the Rouse plan, but it cost $6,600 just to buy the transcript from that hearing. Any appeal must be based on testimony in the transcript. The Maple Lawn transcript could cost $20,000.

"Does that make it potentially cost-prohibitive to appeal? I think it certainly has an impact," said Fries, president of the Southern Howard Land Use Committee.

Greenebaum, who pays for his legal representation and expert witnesses' time, said the lengthy hearing and delays are costly but not just to him. "Ultimately, those costs are never paid by the developer," he said. "Ultimately, they get passed along to the home buyer."

Dernoga says the citizen-opponent also is paying a price.

"People get worn out. People don't want to get into the hearings because it's too draining, and when you get done with it you look at the cost of [appealing], and you just throw in the towel," he said.

"It's rare that I've ever seen citizens walk away thinking they've won something."

CAPTION: Howard County Zoning Board member Guy Guzzone favors hiring a people's counsel, who would be an independent public advocate.