A 15-acre quarry that dates from an era when Prince William County seemed destined to remain a sleepy, rural southern county has become the focus of a larger debate over the role of growth in what has become the Washington area's fastest growing jurisdiction.

Last week the Prince William County Board of Supervisors all but ruled that the quarry must shut down because it is incompatible with the surrounding rural-residential zone. The board's position is at odds with that of the county's planning director, however, who says the quarry is a needed industry.

"In a way, this is indicative of what the county is going through," said planning director Roger Snyder: "The needs of the residential communities versus the needs of the county's economic base versus the rights of the people who have always been here."

The owner of the quarry, the Culpepper Stone Co., has asked the Prince William Board of Supervisors to reconsider its action of last week, which involved imposing conditions on a special use permit obtained by the company for its quarry. The company says the conditions will force it to all but shut down the quarrying operation entirely.

"The board was basically saying you can't operate a quarry at this site," said Snyder of the board vote. "The conditions make it impossible for them to continue operating."

Company owners could not be reached for comment, but Culpepper Stone's lawyer, Terry Emerson of the Jay Edward McGoldrick firm in Manassas, earlier this week said the company will ask the board to reconsider before filing any lawsuits.

The quarry occupies about 15 acres of land northwest of Haymarket near Silver Lake. Culpepper Stone has been mining shale there since the 1940s, and started crushing hard rock deep in the ground -- a process called "manufacturing" rock -- in 1972, according to town attorney John Foote.

County officials claimed the manufacturing did not conform to the rural-residential zone of the area and filed suit against the company in 1978. They dropped the suit last year, however, when the company agreed to file for a special use permit.

The Board of Supervisors, backed by a dozen neighboring residents, voted Dec. 7 to grant the special use permit, but on the condition that the manufacturing of rock cease and the quarry not be expanded.

"The neighbors were concerned about the dust and noise [of the quarry] as were we," said board chairman Kathleen Seefeldt this week. "We had to look at the proximity of the surrounding properties."

According to Snyder, two homes are within a half mile and 20 homes are a little more than a half mile from the quarry. He said the quarry predates most of the houses, but has been escalating its manufacturing process over the years.

"There is always the debate of when... [what was essentially a] gravel pit became a full-grown quarry," he said.

The planning staff had recommended that the supervisors approve the special use permit, but only with the conditions that dust from the rock crushing machines be eliminated and sound and sight barriers be erected. They recommended the quarry be limited to 55 acres.

Snyder said there are a half-dozen quarries in Northern Virginia and "some make the Culpepper quarry look like a hole dug by a child."

At the meeting, spokesmen for the Culpepper company said they could not possibly continue operating the quarry under the conditions imposed by the board.

"That is just their decision, not ours," said Seefeldt in response this week.

"The inherent idea of a quarry is that you keep digging for hard rock and in doing that you expand," said Snyder. "To say they can't expand is to pretty much say they can't dig."

The matter, like many regarding zoning and existing uses, is clouded by legal technicalities that some say only the courts can determine.

County counsel Foote would not release his legal opinion on the matter until later this week, but said state law required "reasonable" conditions on all permits.

"There was a question of whether the board felt they could legally deny the permit for an existing use or whether it would be better to grant the permit with conditions," he said. "Obviously they thought the latter was best. They did not ask my opinion at the time."