The arduous effort to shape the growth of the District's eight wards by using broad-based citizen planning committees has begun after months of delays, amid outcries from most of those involved in the process that they have not been given enough time to do their work.

Fred Greene, the city's planning director, said the ward planning process will take the general policies approved as part of the District's Comprehensive Plan and "translate them into hard-core, specific land-use designations" in individual city neighborhoods. He stressed that the ward documents will not be considered zoning plans, but acknowledged that the recommendations "will be specific enough to dictate changes in zoning laws."

The ward planning process, approved by the D.C. City Council last March, will determine the look of the city over the next five to 10 years in a variety of ways, including housing, land use, transportation, economic development, public facilities and historic preservation. The job of identifying how to deal with such issues in each ward is the responsibility of citizen advisory committees (CACs) that are composed of 40 to 50 residents and business leaders from each ward.

There are more than 350 CAC members, with about 60 percent representing Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and civic associations, 25 percent from the business community, and the remainder from churches, hospitals, universities and other institutions throughout the city. The chairmen of the individual committees include an architect, a real estate broker, an import lawyer, an economist, a social worker and the former head of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

Numerous persons involved in the ward planning process said it is critical to the city's development and will make it possible for residents to "look at their community and see what's going to be there next week and five to 10 years from now," in the view of David Schlein, chairman for the Ward 6 CAC.

"People live in this city, and they certainly have a part to play in planning their city," said Ward 1 CAC Chairman Dusty McClintick.

While the process just began last month, most CAC chairmen said their completed plans will include general and specific recommendations. In some cases, block-by-block land-use proposals will be made.

Among the specific issues already identified by the CAC chairmen are: the development of the Shaw area and the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1; downtown development, Georgetown congestion, and encroachment by George Washington University on its Foggy Bottom neighbors in Ward 2; dealing with the building boom in Friendship Heights and Cleveland Park in Ward 3; the Fort Totten area and the Georgia Avenue corridor that stretches into Ward 4; revitalization along North Capitol Street and the possible renovation of Hanover Street in Ward 5; the Barney Circle area and commercial development on Capitol Hill and the portion of Anacostia that is in Ward 6; commercial concerns in the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road areas, and increasing low- to moderate-income rental housing in Ward 7; and the impact of the Green Line Metro expansion to Anacostia and the development of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Ward 8.

Several ward chairmen said an important factor in the plan's success will be the CACs' ability to avoid isolating themselves within their own wards. On several issues, such as the Georgia Avenue corridor development and Metro's Green Line expansion, more than one ward will be affected.

"I don't see the system set up to work together, unless we do it independently" of the planning office, said Herbert Boyd, Ward 7 CAC chairman.

One overriding concern expressed by seven of the eight CAC chairmen was not being able to complete their planning documents by March 16, the legal deadline.

Some criticized the planning office for taking too long to implement the program. In approving the ward plan process last March, the City Council acted upon the recommendations of many civic associations and ANCs and imposed a one-year deadline for the CACs to complete their planning documents. But the planning office did not appoint the CAC members until mid-November.

Planning director Greene blamed the delayed start on the "lukewarm response" his office received from prospective CAC members. Noting that the process is new to Washington, Greene said he asked the council for two years to complete the planning work.

Council Chairman David A. Clarke, however, charged that the planning office "dilly-dallied," adding that, because it took seven months just to appoint the CAC members, "I have serious questions as to what extent the Office of Planning is serious about the development of ward plans that reflect citizen participation."

Clarke said it was the City Council that forced Mayor Marion Barry to bring citizen participation into the planning process and added that only Barry, by law, can ask the council for a time extension for the ward planners.

"The ultimate requirement is on the mayor, not the citizens," said Clarke, noting that because of the council's legislative schedule, time is running out for an extension to be approved.

Greene said he is "considering" asking Barry to seek an extension.

If the ward planning process is "going to be meaningful, if it's going to be more than just lip service . . . we're going to need more time," said Ward 1's McClintick, whose planning group thus far has met only for an introductory meeting in mid-December.

Most CACs also reported having had only one such meeting, but all plan more substantive meetings when the second round of planning sessions is resumed next week at locations around the city.

The planning office has scheduled only one meeting each month with each ward group to complete the task, but Greene said the CACs most likely will meet more often on their own.

"The job can be done by the citizens, but there's just not the time," said Ward 7's Boyd, who, like the other seven chairmen, was appointed by Barry.

Boyd added that, while his group already has split into eight subcommittees to consider the major concerns in the ward, the issues are too complicated to address fully in the three months the group has been given to complete its plans.

Other CAC chairmen agreed. "The ward planning process is absolutely designed for failure, but we're not going to let that happen," said Ward 2 CAC Chairman William Cochran, who added that not enough support has been available from the District government to assist the CACs, which are composed of residents and business people who are not trained city planners.

"We've gotten very little assistance from the city," he said. "We're supposed to come up with a ward plan. We don't even know what that is."

But for William Sanders, Ward 8 CAC chairman, the lack of time is not a factor.

"I don't see any problem. The ideas are here, and people already know what the problems are," he said, crediting his CAC's success so far on "better planning, extra meetings and a greater commitment on the part of the members to get things done."

Dorn McGrath, a professor in George Washington University's urban and regional planning department who has advised two of the CACs, and some of the CAC chairmen said they also are concerned that background books called State of the Ward Reports, considered fundamental homework for ward planning, are not available yet. The planning office said a printing problem has caused the delay, but said that the reports would be available "soon."

Some of the citizen planners also criticized the planning office's failure to hire a consultant to provide the needed technical support to the ward groups, despite the City Council's approval of $250,000 in supplemental funding last Aug. 15 for the additional services. The critics said now is the time when the technical support is needed most.

Clarke charged that Barry and his planning office "have been grossly negligent or purposely delaying" to hire a consultant, and added that such action is "very disrespectful" of the council's actions.

Greene, who told CAC members at the Nov. 21 kickoff celebration that the consultant would be hired in early December, said that the hiring process has taken longer than he expected, but that he wants to ensure that the best candidate gets the job. He said the consultant would be working with the CACs by the beginning of February.

Several of the CAC chairmen, who have been active in city civic associations for years, said they have felt the scorn of having their advice rejected by the city during other projects, and want their ward plans to have more of a legal role. But at this point, the legal status of the plans hasn't been determined.

What is known about the process is that the mayor will hold public hearings 30 days after the publication of the plans, followed by a revision process before they are submitted with proposals to the City Council. What happens after that is unknown.

"The CACs serve as advisory to me," said planning director Greene. He said he does not favor adoption of the ward plans as law because any future plan revisions would be entangled in a long process that also would involve congressional review.

Greene conceded that the planning office and the CACs "won't agree on everything," but added that the City Council will make the final determination.

As a result, several ward CAC members have threatened to go directly to the City Council if the planning office doesn't approve their recommendations.

"I don't think we're at that point yet," Greene said, however.

Council Chairman Clarke acknowledged that the plan's legal role has "not yet been determined," but added that "the legal character of the plan will to some extent depend on what the proposals are."

GWU's McGrath said the advantage of turning the ward plans into law would be to give city agencies such as the Zoning Commission and the Office of Business and Economic Development explicit policy guidance that they would have to abide by. He characterized city planning now as "little more than mere 'projectitis,' " because there is no actual strategy for development in the Comprehensive Plan, a document "widely understood to be so vague as not to be useful."

Most CAC chairmen, however, noted that because their members represent a cross section of residents and business leaders, they possess strong political clout to ensure that their recommendations are accepted -- especially in an election year. Barry, Clarke and six council members face reelection this year.

Because of the CAC members' diversity, "We're a very potent group politically," said Ward 6's Schlein. "We'll have the ability to put forth considerable pressure."