When Susan Gray took the stage at county Democratic Party headquarters Tuesday night to concede her crushing defeat by Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker, she broke into laughter.
"I'm ecstatic for the people of this county," she said, declaring victory for the referendum question that she promoted, Question B, which changes the county charter to give voters and the county executive veto power over major land-use plans.
The ballot question was approved by 61 percent of the vote -- even though Ms. Gray's own campaign for county executive was crushed by an even greater margin.
Mr. Ecker's victory was accompanied by the election of the first Republican-majority on the County Council in the county's history. But the GOP triumph may turn out to be shadowed by the passage of Question B, which all the victors opposed.
Ms. Gray may have lost her battle to unseat Mr. Ecker, but even her opponents acknowledge that she won the war to alter the way county officials make land-use decisions. There seems little question that she also has pressured Mr. Ecker into adopting a measured-growth stance.
"I think the fact that we have veto power and we have a 'slow-growth' county executive now, I think we're in a much better position for the future," said Peter J. Oswald of Fulton, the question's leading proponent and organizer. "I think we owe a lot of that to Susan."
But County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who opposed Question B, said: "The people that took this petition around destroyed long-range planning in Howard County."
Among the measure's potential effects:
* Bringing much of the zoning process -- and approval of new major county developments -- to a halt until the new council and county lawyers can agree how to put a new system into place, which could be tied up by court battles for years.
* Throwing into doubt some recent and controversial county land-use decisions, such as the designation of certain "mixed-use" areas for both homes and businesses. Some development experts believe future decisions affecting those areas now could be overturned by referendums allowed by Question B.
* Halting the possible plan for a Redskins football stadium in Laurel. The plan is contingent on moving Laurel Race Course stables to Howard County, which would require a zoning regulation change that would be subject to Mr. Ecker's veto and a referendum petition.
* Affecting some land-use decisions so much that developers' financing could be thrown into doubt.
"My concern is that the financing institutions will not be convinced that a rezoning will hold," said Valdis G. Lazdins, a principal at LDR International Inc., a planning firm that worked on one of the county largest developments, the 682-acre Waverly Woods II project in Marriottsville and Woodstock.
"With having such a major potential impact on land use in the county, it's still unclear on exactly how the process is going to work," he said.
That uncertainty carries the potential to wreak havoc with major development projects and could force developers to seek only smaller, piecemeal changes, which are not subject to Question B's provisions.
Meanwhile, Question B's opponents are taking consolation that the comprehensive rezoning package passed last year gave the county a big dose of long-range planning for the foreseeable future. Such comprehensive rezoning is generally done every seven or eight years.
"We probably will have to have a petition again to restructure and fix what we've broken," said Mr. Feaga.
Mr. Ecker also is already considering ways of dealing with the effects of the measure -- perhaps through a charter review commission that will be appointed next year to study the structure of county government.
On election night, Ms. Gray said she feared Mr. Ecker and the council would take that course. "I expect to see the charter commission appointed by Ecker basically disembowel Question B," Ms. Gray said. "All the people who oppose Question B will be on it."
But Mr. Feaga said nominees for the 15-member charter review panel would not be asked their position on Question B. The council will select 10 members and the executive five.
After the new council takes office Dec. 5, it's likely to elect Mr. Feaga chairman because he is the senior Republican. He'll replace three-term incumbent Democrat C. Vernon Gray, one of two council Democrats elected.
If the Republicans follow tradition for ruling parties, another Republican will preside over the powerful Zoning Board -- leaving the liquor board chairmanship open for a Democrat.
Although the past council was often a forum for partisan bickering, Mr. Feaga said he believes the new council -- with its 3-2 Republican majority -- will be more deliberative.
"I think we're going to have a lot of respect for each other's views," Mr. Feaga said.
"Vernon Gray and I have always argued -- he has taken his shots at Republicans," Mr. Feaga said. "But on big issues, Vernon and I always get along, and I think all five of us get along with Chuck Ecker."
Now that the Republicans are in power on the council, Mr. Feaga said, they expect to consider the following issues in the near future:
* Changing Zoning Board rules to allow citizens to speak to council members, who sit as the board.
* Dedicating a portion of every tax dollar -- Mr. Feaga's choice is a nickel -- to reducing the county's overall debt.
* Repealing a county regulation requiring real estate agents to show prospective homebuyers copies of the county's 20-year growth policy statement and county zoning maps. "It's been noneffective and could cause the county some liability because we can't guarantee" land use, Mr. Feaga said.
* Bringing the farmland preservation program up to 20,000 acres by 1998 and then using funds from real estate transfer taxes to bolster education, police and other services.