Montgomery County Council member R. Scott Fosler endorsed limits on county building yesterday "as a last resort" to ease area traffic congestion, a move that shifts momentum on the council in favor of development curbs.

Fosler, a seven-year council member who recently announced that he will retire at the end of his term this year, made the endorsement at a Rockville news conference in which he proposed a "staged approach" to growth limits "to deal with the immediate problems of congestion."

The proposal was immediately endorsed by council members David L. Scull, who is running for county executive, and Neal Potter. Scull, who with Potter last year proposed curbs on the county's development boom in response to rising concern over traffic congestion, said a four-member council majority now favors development curbs.

Fosler's proposal, if approved by the council, would authorize the council to limit growth in areas of high congestion by reducing the number of building permits issued by 30 percent the first year and up to 40 percent the next two years.

The council could prohibit development, however, only after determining that new roads, other transportation initiatives and efforts to negotiate with developers for voluntary limits would not provide adequate traffic relief during that time, he said. Fosler's proposal establishes a complex series of five steps dealing with those issues that the council must study before cutting back on any development.

"It represents a very clear commitment for the council to take direct responsibility [to ensure] that every possible measure [to relieve traffic] be taken for individual areas . . . before limits are imposed," Fosler said.

Scull's bill introduced last year would create a "legal framework" for setting caps -- which are nearly identical to Fosler's restrictions -- and would require the council to develop specific limits within 90 days of a public hearing and "consideration of all the possible ways" to relieve congestion.

The Fosler measure also was endorsed by state Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery), another candidate for county executive, who had strongly opposed the Scull-Potter bill.

Reaction in the business and development community was mixed.

James Culp, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said the proposal was an "enlightened approach" compared to the Scull-Potter measure, which he called "mindless."

But James W. Tavel, a development lawyer, said that "just the principal of building caps" is enough to cause concern, especially in uncertain economic times.

"It sounds like Scott's is an honest effort to reach a workable compromise, but it's a bad time to be running the risk of using overly stringent measures," he said.

Introduction of the Scull-Potter bill sparked a heated debate that pitted dozens of civic groups against the business community. After deadlocking on the issue in October, the council formed a committee to suggest short-term solutions to area traffic problems.

The committee, composed of five citizens, five developers and a former council member, rejected the Scull-Potter proposal two weeks ago in a report that called for new taxes to pay for a stepped-up road building program, among 25 other recommendations.

In its latest report on area traffic congestion, the county Planning Board projected worsening conditions during the next three years in Damascus, in areas east of Germantown and Gaithersburg and in Potomac and Fairland/White Oak.

Fosler's proposal, while billed as a compromise on the controversial issue, sparked a war of words yesterday as Scull sought to embrace the measure as virtually identical to his own while Kramer and Fosler tried to put distance between the two.

"The concepts are substantially identical with the pending bill, Scull said. "I am delighted by Mr. Fosler's statement, [and] I am also gratified that state Sen. Kramer apparently has dropped his strenuous oppositon."

Kramer, disputing any similarity, said the Fosler proposal was "well thought out and well perceived" and would not "throw the building industry into chaos."