When the state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission held a public hearing in Calvert County last week, I drove up expecting to see a fight.

Here, after all, was the infant monster of a new land-use bureaucracy, hungering for the farms and homes and future subdivisions of Southern Maryland. Here was big government playing its old smooth trick of calling for our "input" -- the better to convince us, later, that we'd actually participated in the dismantling of our rights.

I'm exaggerating some of the local suspicions, but only a little. For in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, the bay and its tributaries directly touch a good many lives, and the term "land use" means something more tangible than a set of paper regulations might suggest. Our watermen and farmers survive by exploiting the water and the earth. So do the growing numbers of developers who seek prosperity here.

Thus, in this part of Maryland the program to clean up the Chesapeake is more than a pleasant abstraction. It's a real blessing -- or a real threat. And the most significant, most controversial force within the program is the Critical Area Commission.

This is the agency that, after its current series of public hearings, will draft a set of environmental "criteria" -- guidelines covering activity in the bay, in its tributaries, in adjacent wetlands, and, most crucially, on land within 1,000 feet of the shore or the high tide mark.

Late next year, the commission's proposals will be submitted for criticism at another series of hearings. Revisions will be made, if necessary, after which the final criteria will go to the General Assembly.

Once the legislature adopts them, it will be up to the counties and towns that govern in the "critical area" to develop programs ensuring that the state limits are observed.

The potential for conflict is obvious, especially in this rural but quickly growing region, where, as an environmentalist friend of mine sarcastically notes, local officials still believe in "the sovereign right of a man to do any damn thing he wants to do with a piece of land he owns."

Farmers and watermen, real estate developers, county leaders eager to encourage economic growth -- they all love the Chesapeake, presumably. Many of them would prefer to continue loving it, however, in their own manner, with as little government interference as possible.

The risk, of course, is that without a little more government interference, they'll collectively love the bay to death.

Given the sensitivity of the bay cleanup issue, the public hearing, which took place in Prince Frederick, was surprisingly tame. There were no raised voices, no outbursts of applause, no shouting, groans or laughter. A number of people who had signed up to testify actually declined when called upon, saying their points had already been covered.

I suspect that Judge Solomon Liss, chairman of the commission, was a calming influence. Liss ran the hearing with the patience, courtesy, common sense, and good humor of an old-time country doctor.

He also gave emphatic reassurances that the commission "is not and never was intended to be a 'super-zoning board.' " Nobody else, interestingly enough, brandished this fearful buzzword.

Instead, people voiced their worries, in their own language -- nervous, faltering, at times unfocused. Long-time landowners remembered when the river water was transparent and the marshes were full of ducks. Parents told of how it hurt them to see their children stare, skeptical but curious, in response to stories of forest and wildlife once thriving in places now paved.

Farmers whose land fell within the 1,000-foot protection zone wondered whether they would be prohibited from using some chemicals and fertilizers on their farms. Business representatives and scientists spoke, in their respective jargons, of "controlled commercial development," "negative impact," "biota," and "eutrofication."

I was curious to see what my local officials, the St. Mary's County commissioners, would say. St. Mary's is enjoying -- many would say reeling from -- a building boom that the commissioners seem uninclined to control.

As the commercial sprawl advances and open spaces continue to vanish, citizens have begun to accuse the county government of letting developers do whatever they please, however damaging.

There is an impression, moreover, that zoning decisions take place in a closed realm of insiders, where county officials effectively approve development proposals before the public has had a chance to scrutinize them.

This being the case, many argue, a state agency like the Critical Area Commission is desperately needed -- to save the bay counties from themselves.

But the politicians were lying low. The St. Mary's government was represented by its planning director, who briefly made two points. He appealed to the commission to make sure its criteria were "administratable."

And he questioned the benefit of applying these criteria only to such a relatively limited area. Won't the bay cleanup fail, he suggested, if land-use controls don't cover the entire, vast watershed?

My environmentalist friend, who has no love for the county planner, noted the slyness of this last question. Widening the critical area effort to the whole watershed -- from Virginia to New York -- would at this point simply "get more people stirred up and decrease the chances of anything worthwhile happening," my friend observed.

Yet the planner was not alone in questioning the soundness and fairness of delineating a 1,000-foot waterfront zone within which people have to live cleanly, while failing to regulate dirty habits upstream. As a farmer put it, "A lot of us are going to pay the price, and the job is not going to get done."

As the evening went on, I wondered whether the tameness of the proceedings might not reflect something hopeful: an acknowledgment, on the part of even the most narrowly focused interest groups, that the problems of the Chesapeake are indeed serious, and their solutions bewilderingly complex -- and potentially painful.

The people who came forward to address Judge Liss and the commission were earnestly groping, many of them.

"Without ownership of land, you really have no freedom," one man asserted, only to add a moment later, "I guess I'm ready to sacrifice some more to get back a clean environment."

"I don't want to develop my land," a woman said sadly, "but I don't want a commission to tell me not to develop my land."