After two years of debate, the Ocean City, Md., City Council has taken drastic steps to limit construction in the crowded resort, once a community of small summer homes and now dominated by looming condominiums that fill the shoreline for miles.

In voting unanimously Monday night to slash allowed density for new construction by about 40 percent, the council was going a long way toward preserving Ocean City's attractiveness and keeping its water and sewer services from being overtaxed, city officials said today.

Developers criticized as rash the new ordinance limiting building and rebuilding in the popular resort. Ocean City has a year-round population of 5,000 and about 32,000 housing units; on one record weekend in August it attracted more than 304,000 visitors.

The council action reduces the density allowed in the the most crowded quarter of the city from 72 units an acre to 43.

Those areas were medium-density housing is permitted would be reduced from 39 units per acre to 21. The council increased the minimum lot size required for detached houses from one-tenth of an acre to one-fifth.

"It just reaches a point where you have to say stop, wait a minute," said Geoffrey Robbins, chairman of the city's planning and zoning commission.

In the long run, he said, "you are going to see projects that have more open space. They are just not going to look crowded. . . . Maybe we'll see four nice, large units rather than six or eight . . . very skinny ones."

Developers and city officials said the new zoning restrictions would first show their effects on the western side of the city, along Assawoman Bay, where there is more open space.

On the ocean side -- where the main thoroughfare, Coastal Highway, is already jammed with high-rise condominiums and hotels, apartment buildings, restaurants, motels and shops -- the new ordinance will have an impact on redevelopment projects, they said.

But Ronald Goodman, president of the Developers of Ocean City Association, said it is likely to be at least three years before any impact is noticed. It will take that long, he predicted, before the existing inventory of residential units and projects already approved, estimated at 2,500 units, are purchased.

"At that point, I think you will see a signficant reduction in construction in Ocean City," Goodman said.

Goodman's organization strenuously fought the down-zoning ordinance, arguing that the council did not have a clear understanding of the potential impact.

"If a comprehensive plan had been presented" and "an impact study and a study of all the elements that go into a major decision like this" were made, he said, "perhaps we might have supported a reduction in density."

Goodman said Monday's decision was a compromise to address concerns of prodevelopment and antidevelopment groups, but he said it didn't address other problems.

Nobody knows for sure, he said, how many of the visitors who jam the city in summer are just spending the day and how many need lodging.

"I think it's nearly everyone's conclusion in Ocean City -- anyone who lives here, works here or owns property here -- that unbridled growth would be detrimental over the years to come," said City Council member John Trumpower. "As everybody knows, you have finite resources.

"At some point you're going to run out of water, the ability to handle sewer, and the ability to manage the flow of traffic up and down Coastal Highway."