The empty auditorium made the point: Agricultural issues rarely generate much interest in lower Montgomery County.

Last week, members of the Montgomery County Planning Board waited patiently at their Silver Spring offices for citizens to ask questions about a proposal intended to preserve nearly one-third the county's land for argicultural use.

At 9 p.m. -- an hour and a half after the meeting was scheduled to begin -- the planners stuffed the undistributed pamplets in their briefcases and headed home. No one had showed.

The lack of interest, planners said, reflects the attitude that prompted officials to draft the plan in the first place. Farming, they said, has never been considered a permanent way of life in Montgomery County.

Thirty years ago, more than two-thirds of the county's land -- or 213,000 acres -- supported more than 1,500 farms.

Today, under pressure of rising land prices, the number of farms has dwindled to 667 on 131,000 acres. The majority of the land is located in the northern half of the county.

Fearing that, in time, farmland might all but disappear, despite rural zoning laws, the county council enacted a one-year temporary measure last October. It restricted building on 80,000 acres of rural land to one dwelling per 25 acres.

The council instructed the planning department to devise a way to permanently preserve farming activity without financially punishing farm owners.

The result of that directive is a series of land use policies that would limit development on more than 160,000 farm and rural acres in northern Montgomery County. Farm owners would be allowed to recoup some of the financial loss incurred by the restrictions. Planning officials said farmland now averages $3500 an acre in northern Montgomery County.

Citizens will have several more chances to discuss the proposal at public hearings around the county. The county council will hold its public hearing on July 9 at 8 p.m. at the county council hearing room in Rockville.

Under the proposed plan; explained Agricultural Resource coordinator Rene Johnson, the 160,000 acres would be divided into three categories:

Agricultural Reserve. This category would cover 114,000 acres and would be zoned to allow one unit per 25 acres.

Rural Open Space with 20,000 acres in parts of Goshen Woodfield, Olney and the lower Patuxent Conservation area. The land would be zoned to permit one unit per 5 acres.

Growth Centers with 27,000 acres in Clarksburg, Olney, Poolesville and Damascus. Zoning measures would be applied according to area general plans.

One of the farm owners' major objections to last year's interim measure, said county planner Melissa Banach, was a lack of compensation for the loss of what they saw as their right to develop.

In a effort to meet this objection, the current plan proposes that if a farm is placed under the "agricultural reserve" category the landowner would be permitted to sell "transfer development rights" to developers wishing to build in specific areas outside the reserve where public services are capable of absorbing additional density.

Banach said that while the farmer would be allowed to develop his property at a rate of one unit per 25 acres, under the "transfer development program" the farmer would be allowed to sell his development rights at a rate of one unit per five acres, while still retaining his property.

The purchase of development rights, Banach said, will permit developers in these areas to increase their building density.

Banach described how the transfer process would occur: If a farmer owns 600 acres in the agricultural reserve area he could either build 24 homes on the property -- in compliance with the one unit per 25 acres ordinance -- or he could sell 120 development rights -- one unit per 5 acres.

Banach said in neighborhood Howard County where a similar program has been implemented, development rights are selling for $1,600 an acre.

In addition to being eligible for the county transfer development program, Banach said, farm owners are also eligible to participate in two state programs -- the State Farmland Preservation Program and the Maryland Environment Trust -- which provide limited financial compensation for farmers who agrees to continue farming.

The council is expected to vote on the farmland preservation plan in October. If it is not approved, planning commissioner Mable Granke predicts a grim future for agriculture -- and people -- in Montgomery County.

Farm products, Granke said, provide a substantial contribution to the food stock in the county and support a $23 million farm business.

"This is the last chance we have," said Granke, "if we do not do something now, there will be no farms in Montgomery County.

Public hearings will be held on the following dates:

June 16 at 7:30 p.m. Germantown Campus, Montgomery College, Room 104, Science Building, 20200 Observation Drive, Germantown.

June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Hyattstown Fire Station, Hyattstown.

June 23 at 7:30 p.m. St. Mary's Pavilion, Barnesville.

June 26 at 7:30 p.m. Isaac Walton League, Willard Road, Poolesville.

June 30 at 7:30 p.m. Isaac Walton League, Mullinix Road, Damascus.