Prince George's County, criticized by many of its residents for permitting urban-type development to sprawl across the once-rural countryside, may soon adopt a general plan that emphasizes compact development around the Beltway and established communities, and preservation of open space and farmland in outlying areas.

At a public hearing last week, however, most of the three dozen speakers were critical of the proposal, which is a modified version of the "wedges and corridors" general plan adopted by both Montgomery and Prince George's counties in 1964. They called the new plan an unenforceable "paper tiger" and "a worthless . . . meaningless . . . document" that gives the County Council "a license for continued spot zoning."

Other speakers at the hearing called it a good plan that could end "leapfrog development" if the County Council adheres to it.

What virtually all the speakers were saying, top county planners concede, is that many Prince George's residents distrust the council because it has ignored the current general plan.

Both the 1964 plan and the new proposal call for intensive development along the highways and Metro subway lines (corridors) and little development in between (the green wedges). Both are advisory only. The first sentence of the proposal emphasizes this: "The General Plan is a guide -- not a mandate."

The proposal, 240 pages of small print and maps, is expected to be approved by the council this fall after it is refined in several work sessions. Comment on it may be submitted in writing until Nov. 19.

"Nowhere in this plan is there any clear-cut statement about the general plan's supremacy over anything. . . . If it is not the guiding policy document, we've been wasting our time," Lee Clayman told the joint meeting of the County Council and the planning board. Clayman was a member of the 1976 citizens advisory committee formed by the council to propose changes in the 1964 general plan. A plan proposed in 1977 was rejected because of strong opposition from both developers and residents.

Clayman's comments were echoed by other speakers.

"Three years ago at the public hearing, developers claimed the plan was no-growth and citizens said it would overdevelop" the county, said Sonia Goebel, a former member of the citizens advisory committee who lives in Mitchellville. "This plan seems more reasonable, but it allows area plans to amend the general plan." Allowing plans for smaller areas of the county to amend the general plan "is putting the cart before the horse," she added.

County planners argue that the purpose of the general plan is to outline broad goals, as is the case in Montgomery County. "It's not supposed to have teeth in it. It's only a guide to zoning," said Thomas Tyson, principal county planner with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

"Some citizens want it to be a criminal offense to violate the general plan," apparently because they distrust the County Council, Tyson said after the hearing.

The Montgomery County Council generally has followed the 1964 plan, limiting rural growth to five- and 25-acre sites, and restricting industrial and commercial development to highway corridors and developed areas. Prince George's residents complain that their officials have allowed industrial and small-lot residential development to spread in a haphazard fashion throughout the county.

"The council has been unwilling or unable to adhere to any plan," said William Addison, president of a recently formed community preservation group called the Save Prince George's County Committee. "We don't blame developers for wanting to develop -- that's their business -- or landowners for wanting to get the most money for their land. We blame you," he told council members attending the hearing. "You've got to take a much stronger stand than you have in the past 20 years" to control development.

Nancy Hill, an Upper Marlboro resident and member of Addison's group, praised the plan as generally sound. "It recommends revitalization of areas closer in toward Washington and near public facilities, and stresses the importance of farmland and using estate-type development as a transition between urban and rural areas. However, the plan means nothing if the council continues its course of approving spot development throughout rural areas" and ignores the recommendations of the planning board, Hill said.

Several speakers praised the proposed large-site, estate-type development as a buffer between suburban and rural areas and a means of keeping high-income residents in the county. The Chamber of Commerce, however, singled out this idea as an "extremely wasteful use of land."

The chamber also opposed the plan's emphasis on saving farms, saying, "preservation of large open spaces and agricultural lands may directly conflict with another goal: to encourage large, new town and activity centers."

County planner Tyson admitted the plan has several controversial aspects. It includes projects such as the Intercounty Connector and the Mattawoman new town complex, which many civic groups and speakers at the hearing strongly opposed.

The plan gives priority to revitalizing and filling out built-up areas that already have utilities and schools. It shows three large satellite cities (Bowie, Laurel and the proposed Mattawoman), but it projects greatly reduced development in outlying parts of the county, and corridors much shorter than those envisioned in the 1964 wedges-and-corridors plan.