The Fairfax County supervisors took the first step yesterday toward repealing the controversial law that requires consumers to pay a deposit on every soft-drink container purchased in the county.

The law, aimed at reducing roadside litter by forcing consumers to return cans and bottles, has been in effect in Fairfax for 28 months. It and a similar measure in neighboring Loudoun County are the only such laws in the Washington area. A container deposit law is scheduled to go into effect in Montgomery County next October.

Critics of the laws have long argued that they hurt local businessmen while failing to cut down on litter.

In response to that criticism, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 4 yesterday to schedule a public hearing on the possible repeal of the law. The hearing is likely to take place in early March, county officials said.

"I believe in a statewide approach," said Supervisor Tom Davis (R-Mason), who introduced the measure pressing for the law's repeal. "A county like Fairfax can't go by itself. People can just go across county lines and bring back bottles."

Voting with Davis were Republican Board Chairman John F. Herrity, Joseph Alexander (D-Lee), Nancy Falck (R-Dranesville) and Sandra L. Duckworth (D-Mt. Vernon).

The Fairfax and Loudoun laws have been challenged by the bottling industry. After being upheld in lower courts, the ordinances are now being considered by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Leading the argument against the ordinance's repeal, Supervisor Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville) said the county's power to enact the ordinance was far more crucial than the issue of the bottles themselves.

"Essentially, this question focuses not on bottles but on the police power of the board," Pennino said after the board's vote ended a lengthy debate. "If that's eroded away, then we may as well go home and hang up our hats."

Pennino said repeal of the ordinance would eliminate the county's chance to represent its views on police power before the state Supreme Court. c

Herrity said the bottle ordinance adds to inflation, requiring county merchants to spend valuable time processing containers returned for deposits.

"These things can nickel-and-dime you to death," Herrity said, adding "there is no free lunch."

County officials said yesterday studies of the law's effectiveness in reducing litter, have proved inconclusive.

A study last year of the law's economic impact, conducted by a professor at George Mason University, concluded that the ordinance was cutting significantly into business.

In the first 16 months of the law's 28-month life, the study found, soft drink sales in Fairfax County dropped 12 percent. That translated into a potential loss of $14.6 million in sales to county businesses, according to the study's author, business administration professor Richard L. Entrikin.

Over a comparable period, Entrikin found soft drink sales in neighboring Northern Virginia localities had climbed 16 to 19 percent. Entrikin attributed part of that increase to Fairfax residents buying nonreturnable bottled drinks elsewhere.

The Fairfax and Loudoun laws do not require deposits on beer or liquor containers because sales of alcoholic beverges are regulated by Virginia law. There is no state deposit requirement.

Although Montgomery County's container ordinance was passed four years ago, it has still not been put into effect. The County Council has postponed its effective date three times at the request of the county's Department of Liquor Control, which has requested more time to plan procedures for handling returned bottles and cans. The Montgomery law covers beer containers as well as those for soft drinks.

David Sobers, director of Montgomery County's Office of Environmental Planning, said county leaders there were likely to feel "dismay or distress" over the Fairfax move.

He said the Fairfax move will cut into the beginnings of a regional approach to bottle control in the area.