The Montgomery County Council yesterday narrowly approved a proposal that could limit building in high-growth areas -- a controversial issue that has confounded the council for nine months -- but the vote is expected to be vetoed.

County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist yesterday renewed promises to veto the proposal, which had passed by a 4-to-3 vote. His decision would send the issue back to the council, which would need a five-vote majority to enact what has been an extremely divisive proposal.

Council member Esther Gelman, after weeks of flip-flopping, cast the pivotal vote on the measure that would limit the number of building permits for homes and commercial development as a "last resort" effort in areas such as Germantown and Gaithersburg that are experiencing unprecedented development.

Gelman, who is running for Congress this year, had voted for the cap on previous occasions. Last week, she indicated she would vote against the measure after describing it as not well thought out. In a straw vote last Friday, she abstained from making a decision, saying she needed more financial data.

Yesterday, Gelman said she sided with council members David Scull, Neal Potter and Scott Fosler in an effort to "push the executive into doing the things that will eliminate the need for caps."

The cap was proposed in July by Scull and Potter to place a ceiling on the number of building permits that could be issued in high growth areas during the next three years. It quickly became controversial and divided the council, the business community and civic associations in an emotional and intense debate that has dominated the council's weekly meetings.

The debate also has spilled over to the campaign trail of the council members who are running for elective office this fall. Scull, who is running for county executive, has campaigned hard on the issue.

Weeks ago, Fosler amended the proposal to allow initially for the establishment of a task force to monitor programs such as ride-sharing and shuttle service to Metro stations that could cut down on congestion in the boom county before caps could be implemented.

In the proposal adopted yesterday, the council must evaluate those measures first and then, "as a last resort" can limit the number of building permits that could be issued as a way to halt growth.

"To vote against it, was to say, 'We wash our hand of the problem,' " Gelman said yesterday. "The exec is going to veto this anyway but . . . with this vote, I was trying to keep the exec's attention on what is a serious problem."

Gilchrist described the proposal yesterday as "completely unworkable" and something that "undermines our credibility and stature as a fiscally and developmentally sound county."

The bill approved yesterday was amended to delete references to how and where the permits should be allocated. Gilchrist said the last-minute change was "evidence of the problems the council will have with administration of the proposal . . . evidence of the weakness of the legislation."

The building cap measure is one of several proposals that the council has debated during the past year in an effort to deal with record growth in the county. The council also unanimously agreed to a proposal yesterday that would establish yearly monitoring of real estate trends, provide a status report on building permits and involve the council, the county executive and planning board in a process to establish thresholds for growth.

The council, which tentatively agreed last week that more revenue was needed to help pay for roads, did not vote yesterday on legislation proposed by Gilchrist that would generate the money.

According to Gilchrist's proposal, a fee would be placed on all new development in certain glutted areas along I-270 and Rte. 29 in order to generate as much as $6 million a year to pay for half the roads needed there.

The council agreed 5 to 1 last week to approve such a proposal but did not have time to take a formal vote yesterday. The impact fee proposal is scheduled to be considered on Tuesday.