For decades, the bulldozer has roamed the land in Montgomery County, digging the foundations of suburban sprawl. Where rows of soybeans and corn once bent freely, houses and highways soon braced the wind.

For at least as long, county officials have fretted over a way to slow the transformation of raw land into housing, crying "Save Our Farms," as though farms were an endangered species.

These cries have helped produce a plan that officials hope will preserve for farming about 137,000 acres -- 40 percent of the country's land.

In theory, the plan is neat and intriguing. Farmers can sell their rights to develop without ever developing. Builders can increase their housing densities without fighting zoning boards. The county can in inject financial stability into farming without providing large amounts of capitol.

In theory, that is.

In fact:

Farmers endorse the concept of preserving farming, but some reject this plan, dismissing it as unrealistic and inequitable. Dfevelopers and realtors eulogize it as the death of moderately priced housing.Zoning lawyers accuse planners of hiding a no-growth policy under the guise of preservation.

County planners and agricultural specialists alone say they think the plan should work, but are not certain -- it's been tried in too few places.

In short, a plan that could radically alter land use patterns in Montgomery County could be either a Pandora's box or a Norman Rockwell vision. Nobody knows for sure.

What is known is that the agricultural preservation plan hinges on a happy marriage between two normally opposing forces -- development and preservation.

The idea, according to county officials, is to reverse the historic pattern in which farmers sell their land to developers for staggeringly high prices.

Officials hope to accomplish this by placing 114,000 areas of farmland in an "agricultural reserve" which would allow only one house for every 25 acres. This, in turn, would make the land economically unattractive for anything but farming.

Farmers, of course, would have to be compensated for this quintupling of zoning restrictions. So, the planners devised something called "transfer of development rights".

This means that farmers could sell their right to develop their farmland to builders who could then tranfer those rights to other areas whree they could build homes at a higher density than zoning normally allows. Farmers could sell their rights at the old zoning rate of one house per five acres. The building rights could be used in what planners call "receiving areas" -- probably an area already suburbanized.

Thus, if a farmer owns 600 acres in the "agricultural reserve," he could do one of two things: 1) build 24 homes on the property, or 2) sell to a builder 120 development rights. The development rights would allow the builder to construct 120 more homes in the "receiving areas" than zoning would otherwise permit.

County officials estimate that development rights would be worth $7,000 an acre -- or $420,000 for 120 homes.

Protecting farms, planners say, will require more than an "agricultural reserve," however. A buffer zone must be created to protect the farmland from suburban children with motorcycles and others who view an open field as invitation to an open game. As a result, 20,000 surrounding acres will be placed in "rural clusters," allowing development at the rate of one house per five acres.

That is the plan as written.

Like most plans, however, the ink becomes blurred and the unanswered questions loom larger once the pages are bound.

For instance, where will the "receiving areas" be located?

Is there any guarantee that developers will buy the "development rights?"

When will farmers receive the money?

These are all questions farmers have asked throughout the planning process. The responses, they said, have been less than reassuring.

They have been told by planners that only one-eighth of the "receiving areas" have been designated. The others will take about five years to specify.

They have been told the county is proposing a "development rights bank" while the receiving areas are being established. But, it appears, the purchase of "development rights" by the county would be a last resort. Only about $1 million a year for the next five years will be available and the county would prefer to make loans.

Most importantly, farmers have been told there is no guarantee that developers would buy the "development rights" but that those who did would be given quicker sewer hook-ups.

"We can't guarantee anything," said county planner Perry Berman. "We think it should work, but only time will tell."

Some agricultural specialists don't think the plan will work as structured.

Robert Raver, Co-op Extension agent at the University of Maryland, was doubtful.

"We do not have a plan unless the 'receiving areas' are specified and the interim bank firmly established," he said. "There will be no legitimate transfer of development rights unless these two issues are settled before the plan is accepted. They will make or break it."

Raver's comments emphasize one of the plan's biggest sticking points -- no community may want the "receiving areas."

County residents may support the plan, but when it comes to designating the areas, one can already hear: "Yes, I agree with the concept, but not in my neighborhood, please."

Nearly every time the question of increased density in residential areas arises, citizens converge in force to protest. One need go back little more than a month to the public hearings on County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist's proposed housing policy to detect the seeds of dissent. Again and again, residents rose to support low-income housing, but again and again said it did not belong near their homes.

"I can hear the protests already," lamented long-time Realtor Elmer Schick. "Somebody in this county is going to have to wake up and take responsibility. Everybody wants to flush the commode but nobody wants trenching near their house. Everybody wants open space and low-income housing, but nobody wants to pay for it. When is it going to stop?"

Never, said most of Schick's colleagues in the housing market. The plan, they said, is only one more obstacle in a 10-year string of antigrowth policies implemented by the county.

"It's a complete fraud," said zoning lawyer Robert Linowes. "It's an antigrowth ploy cloaked in the coat of agricultural preservation. The county should own up to what it's doing, and be willing to face the legal challenge that it is severely limiting growth."

County planners emphatically denied accusations that they were antigrowth. They said the plan will not work without development and that the plan will not affect the county's ability to fulfill housing needs during the next 50 years. Instead, they said, most new housing will be confined to already developed areas.

"[what] we're talking about [is] an area that has all along been considered rural in recent master plans. We just want to keep it that way," Berman said.

Keep it that way, they will. County Council members who are expected to vote early in October on the measure have indicated the plan will be accepted in some form. The question remains, however: Can farming be legislated into existence or will the land evolve into idle space?