For years the public debate surrounding development in this country has been dominated by the voices of slow growth and no growth on one hand and, on the other, by the exponents of unmanaged growth and scattered low-density development.

But with traffic congestion and other negative aspects of sprawl fast becoming the sources of concerns for taxpayers, elected officials and business leaders, the debate now has been joined by proponents of the concept called "smart growth."

Although support for the idea appears to be growing among public officials and business leaders, it remains to be seen whether a consensus will be built around it.

The concept, if not the term "smart growth," has been part of the political-development debate for years. Still, there doesn't appear to be a consensus definition of smart growth, which is basically a strategy that emphasizes sound planning and land-use techniques as safeguards against sprawl and inefficient use of infrastructure.

The National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals (NALGEP), which unveiled a study on smart growth last week, defines it as development that promotes both economic prosperity and environmental quality.

However, the National Association of Home Builders defined smart growth in much broader contexts in a policy statement the association issued on the subject last month. Smart growth, said the NAHB, means satisfying demand for housing, providing economic growth and prosperity for local communities, using efficient land-use techniques, building more infill housing, revitalizing urban areas and providing more housing choices.

The NAHB obviously has a vested interest in pointing out that a booming economy and strong demand for single-family housing will continue to fuel suburban growth.

On the other hand, the NAHB apparently recognizes that smart growth, as an economic development strategy, encompasses much more than home-building. Hence, the association's acknowledgment that the concept of smart growth has "exploded onto the national consciousness."

"It is an idea that addresses the question of how best to plan for and manage growth, when and where new residential and commercial development as well as schools and major highways should be built and located, and how to pay for the infrastructure required to serve a growing population," the NAHB recently concluded in a report, "Smart Growth: Building Better Places to Live, Work and Play."

There are narrower definitions, to be sure. But the NAHB's view certainly contains the essence of what should be uppermost in the minds of public officials, developers and business leaders as they make decisions about land use and growth.

For whatever reasons, that continues to be a foreign concept in the Washington area, even as sprawl, a byproduct of poor planning, greed and unenlightened leadership, threatens economic growth and the quality of life.

Local officials and business leaders complain about worsening traffic conditions on area roads, curse the Wilson Bridge and the Beltway, and bemoan the fact that productivity is hurt by transportation problems.

And yet few are willing to speak out against leapfrog development that results in sprawl. They worry about the effects of traffic congestion on the region's economy but sidestep land-use policies that favor infill development and better utilization of existing infrastructure as safeguards against further sprawl and gridlock.

NALGEP, in a compelling report, "Profiles of Business Leadership on Smart Growth," describes sprawl as "low-density, discontinuous, automobile-dependent, new development on the fringe of settled areas. . . ."

Neither sprawl nor smart growth can be called new growth issues, however. Listen to the words of Rouse Co. founder James W. Rouse 32 years ago. Sprawl, he said, "is inefficient. It stretches out the distances people must travel to work, to shop, to worship, to play. It fails to relate these activities in ways that strengthen each other and, thus, it suppresses values that orderly relationships and concentration of uses would stimulate."

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening unveiled his smart-growth initiative for the state two years ago. But Glendening first embraced it as an economic development strategy in 1992 when, as Prince George's county executive, he declared: "It makes no sense to continue the mindless suburban sprawl that eats up more open space, clogs our roads and devours government resources."

Still, ambivalent probably best describes attitudes about sprawl, not just in Prince George's County but in the state capital as well.

It's fairly obvious, meanwhile, that sprawl will be a major issue in local elections this year in Northern Virginia, especially in Loudoun and Prince William counties, where slow-growth advocates made it an issue in recent primary races.

Chances are it will continue to be a burning political issue as long as elected officials and business leaders regard smart growth as an anti-growth scheme instead of a quality of life initiative.