The Montgomery County Council, after a divisive and confusing day of debate, tentatively agreed yesterday that the county should pay for new roads needed in certain fast-growing sections by charging an impact fee on development.

With some members pointedly criticizing the effects of the looming election year on the issue of growth in the county, the council at its work session also threw out a proposal to place an excise tax on new development and split sharply on a proposal to limit growth by placing a three-year cap on the number of county building permits that could be granted. The vote on the cap, which was on whether the limits should be allowed without amendment, was three in favor, three opposed and one abstention.

The impact fee proposal is now scheduled to be taken up in a formal council hearing Tuesday.

Council member David Scull, who had recommended the building limit and the excise tax, was not present for the votes on the tax or the fee, but did vote on the building limit. Scull, who is a candidate for county executive, said later he had a prior campaign commitment that caused him to miss the votes.

He expressed disappointment in the defeat of the excise tax proposal and added later that the split vote on the building cap indicated the measure would not survive a final vote by the council.

"It's over for caps," said Scull, pointing out that County Executive Charles Gilchrist had vehemently opposed the building limit and the excise tax. Gilchrist, who supported the impact fee, had promised to veto any attempt by the council to impose the limit or tax.

The council can override a veto with a majority of five members. But the prospect of such agreement on the building limit issue appears slim in light of the intense, emotional debate.

Gilchrist opposed the building limit and proposed the county could raise half the funds it needed for new roads -- $6 million a year -- by applying impact fees on development in congested north-south arteries of Interstate 270 and Rte. 29 to specifically generate revenue for services in those areas. It would cost the average homeowner, Gilchrist said, about $1,200 more in construction costs.

Under Scull's proposal, the excise tax would be placed on all construction in the county, at a rate no higher than $3.25 per square foot. He estimated it would increase the cost of new single-family homes by $3,735.

Scull later adjusted his proposal to be limited to a rate of $2 a square foot that would increase the cost of a home by $2,300 and generate $30 million annually for the county.

On the building limit vote, Esther Gelman, a congressional candidate who had previously voted for the building limit and then indicated this week she would vote against it, abstained yesterday, adding that she wanted more financial data. Rose Crenca, who previously had not taken a stand on the limit, joined Michael Gudis and William Hanna in opposing the limit. Scott Fosler, Neal Potter and Scull voted to maintain the cap proposal.

The excise tax was eliminated in a 4-to-2 vote with Potter and Gelman dissenting. The impact fee proposal was supported by five council members with Gelman dissenting and Scull absent.

The votes taken by the council yesterday come after nine months of debate over whether the county, part of a ring of jurisdictions around the Washington area now experiencing a building boom, needs to limit growth because of escalating pressures on roads and schools.

Concern over that growth generated several proposals from council members to limit building, cries of protest from builders and developers, letters from homeowners and civic leaders who remember simpler times and streams of rhetoric from all that promises to flow into and fill the political debate this autumn.

The building limit had originally been proposed by Scull last July and later was amended to be part of a package of bills that included a yearly growth policy. The council, in repeated preliminary votes, had been split on the issue and then became further split by the need to raise revenue for new services to accompany the added development and the rival Gilchrist and Scull proposals.

Discussions by the council last week indicated the choice between the fee and tax would not be an easy one. Yesterday, council members, in a series of maneuvers, agreed that each proposal to limit or monitor growth should be considered separately.

Scull argued against the separation of bills, specifically separating the building limit proposal from other more acceptable measures.

Scull said after the meeting that he did not know whether he would devise another building limit proposal that could appeal to a majority of the council.