Now, it seems — given the growth of the area: "Location, location, location," he said.

Indeed, the property is well positioned, minutes from Interstate 95 and U.S. 29 and about a mile from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory — the county's largest private employer — and across from the public schools, stores, restaurants and offices at Maple Lawn.

Erskine said the proposal fits the goals of PlanHoward and represents what the anti-suburban-sprawl Smart Growth idea was about when it was first proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the early 1990s. He said the opponents' alternative would only perpetuate sprawl.

The opponents, Erskine said, "seem to think Smart Growth is compact, walkable communities developed in somebody else's neighborhood."

For their part, the opponents say Maple Lawn South isn't consistent with Smart Growth or PlanHoward, which calls for extending public water and sewer service to this property and two others in Ellicott City and Clarksville.

County Councilman Greg Fox, who represents Fulton, says he's opposed to the proposed development, which he said is "not even in the ballpark" of PlanHoward's guidelines for that area. He said PlanHoward's proposal for the property to be connected to public water and sewer service isn't designed to promote more intense development; it's intended to curb the use of septic systems for "bay restoration."

"The administration never discussed the desire for that type of change," said Fox. "That's not appropriate … it's pretty clear."

Mixed opinions

County planners don't entirely agree. Planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin, who met with Pereira and other opponents last week to discuss their alternative, recently wrote in an email to some residents, "We need to grow smarter. Higher density, mixed use development that is walkable and in close proximity to transit is essential … to accommodate growth, minimize sprawl, and protect the environment."

Her agency, the county Planning Department, recommends the zoning Iager wants. Lower density on the Iager property, McLaughlin said, "was not an appropriate use" of land so close to highways and employment.

Meanwhile, members of the Planning Board recommend a mix of that zoning, and the much less dense use that Pereira's group advocates, but has not specified how much land should be allocated to each.

Opponents say they are not reassured by the county's Adequate Public Facilities laws, which tie the number of homes that can be built in a given year to school and road capacity. Neither are they mollified by Erskine's suggestion that the first residents of Maple Lawn South would probably not move in until at least six years from now, when the picture of school enrollments could be very different.

Current projections are that nearby Fulton Elementary and Lime Kiln Middle School will be 84 and 83 percent full, respectively, when school opens at the end of this summer, said Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning. Reservoir High will be at 94 percent of capacity by August, he said.

Adequate Public Facilities limits on growth do not kick in until a school reaches 115 percent of capacity, McLaughlin said, and do not apply to high schools.

Regarding environmental concerns about development, Erskine said potentially polluting runoff from roofs and paved roads and driveways would have to be controlled under state stormwater laws — which he contended would actually improve on the current conditions. The field is now used to graze cows, whose waste is washed directly into streams, he said.

Fred Tutman, the CEO of the Patuxent Riverkeeper organization, said that argument makes no sense.

"It's a ridiculous argument," Tutman said. "No building is better for the environment. Nature's plan is always better than the built universe."

For some Fulton residents, Maple Lawn South represents what they tried to escape by moving to what was a rural area not so long ago.

Elizabeth Cooper recently wrote to county officials that she moved to the area about 12 years ago from Montgomery County, where her family had lived more than 20 years. She said she left to be closer to work and to "escape the growing crowding and congestion."

She said with Maple Lawn, and now Maple Lawn South, it seems to have followed her.

"In the relatively short time we have lived here," she wrote, "we have seen development that makes the crowding we left in Montgomery County pale in comparison."