Metropolitan Washington's commercial real estate slump offered landowners and Fairfax County supervisors a golden opportunity to rethink their positions on a divisive zoning dispute and to seek a compromise to benefit both the county and business. Reasonable people might have considered such an alternative to name-calling and a spate of lawsuits, but politicians and developers in Fairfax County are throwbacks to the Hatfields and McCoys.

Practically everyone but them, it seems, knows the commercial real estate market is dead in the water and will be for some time. The market itself has emerged as the single most powerful zoning arbiter and planner. For at least a year now, it has been dictating a radically different course than the one developers and politicians have insisted on following.

Take a look around, folks. There are more than 19 million square feet of empty office space in Northern Virginia -- a whopping 20 percent vacancy rate. You can't give away office space in most of Northern Virginia today. Why fight to build something that you can't rent or sell? Why fight to stop development of something that nobody in his right mind will attempt to build for another three or four years?

Both sides blew it. Rather than using the moratorium imposed by market forces to do a better job of jointly planning growth in the county, developers and politicians fought to impose their wills on each another. Rather than attempting to seek an accommodation in the best interests of the county, these antagonists would rather take feuding to the limit, like two hostile bands of adolescents engaged in a deadly game of chicken. The outcome, in the case of Fairfax County, is one in which taxpayers ultimately will get hurt. Business growth could suffer as well.

A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge intervened in the latest skirmish involving county officials and business interests last week by overthrowing a controversial zoning law that restricted office development on several thousand acres. The zoning law, passed last year, substantially reduced the amount of development that would be permitted on most commercial and industrial sites and prohibited office construction, except by special permit, on many parcels.

Landowners and developers in the county are claiming victory as a result of last week's court ruling. There really are no clear winners in this war of attrition between the business community and government officials.

The judge's ruling is a hollow victory at best. Like the battered and bloody combatant who insists, after engaging in a bruising fight, "You should see the other guy," landowners and other business interests in the county will tell you they have been vindicated by the ruling.

Landowners contend the ruling upheld the sacred doctrine of property rights. Perhaps. The likelihood is that it set the stage for another donnybrook over public officials' authority to zone land, and the right of landowners and developers to build what they see fit within the broad framework of zoning laws.

According to news accounts, the zoning law overturned last week was improperly drafted and too vague. The board of supervisors failed to state a valid public purpose for its actions, as required by state law, Judge William G. Plummer found. Conceivably, county supervisors could either appeal the ruling or pass another law that is properly drafted, unambiguous, and that clearly states a valid purpose for restricting office development, as state law requires.

By issuing the ruling as he did -- based less on a question of the board's authority than on technical merits -- Plummer only confused the issue and prolonged the debate.

It's not yet clear what action the board of supervisors will take in response to Plummer's ruling, but Vice Chairman Martha V. Pennino made it clear in an interview with a Washington Post reporter that she's willing to support an appeal because "the board had a right to do what it did." Statements made by other supervisors indicate they feel just as strongly.

In the celebration and postmortems that followed last week's ruling, C. Thomas Hicks III, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, came as close as anyone has in years to a reasonable position in this nonsensical dispute.

"What we would like to see is some consensus of leadership on the Board of Supervisors starting next Monday {today} to say, 'Let's stop the hemorrhaging, stop throwing money in this ill-conceived battle and let's see whether we can work with the business community and the citizens to resolve our problems,' " Hicks told a reporter following Plummer's ruling.

Hicks probably can advance the process by calling for a consensus in his organization and related elements of the real estate industry.

The issue of how much development is either desirable or harmful in the current market is moot. The relevant question, it seems, is how the public and private sectors can work in a cooperative way to prepare for the next growth cycle. Will they continue at loggerheads and add to the county's growth problems, or will they learn from the past?

Two things at least are indisputable. Single-minded, inflexible no-growth policies haven't prevented developers in Fairfax County from overbuilding. By the same token, a single-minded, unenlightened approach to stockpiling office buildings in forests, on farmland and pastures has hurt developers far more than any law-limiting development. A significantly large part of the area's economic worries can be attributed to the development stampede of the 1980s that has left more than 30 million square feet of vacant office space on the local market.

Every industry report shows that new construction is virtually nonexistent in Northern Virginia. "The current office climate in the Northern Virginia market can best be described as tense," an official with Spaulding & Slye Colliers wrote in a recent market report published by the real estate services firm.

Indeed, commercial construction in metropolitan Washington is at its lowest level in five years, according to the Council of Governments. Most developers and their lenders have taken refuge from the real estate storm that destroyed cash flow and earnings. Growth versus no-growth issues have given way to concerns about slower growth.

They're still fighting the growth or no-growth war in Fairfax County, however. When will they ever learn?