The race for the Coles District seat on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has three candidates and one ghost.

The contest, to be decided in the Nov. 3 election, features a Republican, an independent who has been endorsed by the Democrats, and an independent who prides himself on not being tied to any party. Hovering over the campaign has been the political specter of G. Richard Pfitzner, who is stepping down after two terms on the county board.

Pfitzner, a Democrat and one of the most visible politicians on the seven-member board, has become an issue in the battle to elect his successor. Two of the candidates -- Republican Theresa A. Barratt and independent Denis Catalano -- have described the race's front-runner, Terrence Spellane, as a Pfitzner clone.

Coming from Barratt or Catalano, that's no compliment. They contend that Pfitzner and Spellane, the chairman of the Prince William Planning Commission, symbolize what Barratt and Catalano believe is the county's poor planning and overly permissive approach to development.

Spellane, a 43-year-old Massachusetts native who as a federal employe is required by law to run as an independent, dismisses his opponents' barbs. He is not beholden to Pfitzner or any other county official, Spellane said, adding that his record on the Planning Commission is a model of the balanced approach to growth that has softened the impact of massive residential development and buttressed the county's tax base to allow vital improvements in public facilities and services.

Spellane was chairman of a quasi-official citizens committee formed last year to promote passage of a $42 million bond referendum that would have paid for roads and other public facilities. That bond passed in the Coles District but was defeated countywide after fierce opposition from conservative activists.

"I do have a record and I'm proud of that record," Spellane said.

The Coles District includes a broad patch of middle and eastern Prince William, including heavily suburbanized areas near the old Woodbridge Airport and western Dale City, stretching to semirural communities such as Independent Hill to the west. Since the 1983 election, the district has experienced some of the county's heaviest growth.

Spellane said his experience on the ladder of county civic affairs, which began in a Dale City homeowners group in the early 1970s and includes involvement with youth sports and service groups and eight years as Pfitzner's planning commissioner, makes him the best qualified of the three contenders for the Coles seat.

Undoubtedly, it has given him a political edge, according to observers in both parties, who say that Spellane's name recognition in the community has given him a clear lead with the election less than four weeks away.

Not surprisingly, Barratt and Catalano have little patience for this view, believing that they can mobilize their supporters to score an Election Day upset.

Barratt, like many Prince William Republicans, is an ardent fiscal conservative who opposed last year's bond referendum. Unlike many of the county's most vocal conservatives, however, she takes a more moderate stance on growth, saying that she supports balanced growth with an emphasis on economic development.

What Prince William needs, contends the 53-year-old Philadelphia native, is better planning and a tougher stance in making developers adhere to these plans. Lack of foresight, Barratt said, is what led to the current school shortage in Coles, where many students ride buses as far as 20 miles to classrooms in Manassas.

Spellane and Catalano also have endorsed the push for more neighborhood schools.

Barratt said her employment with her husband in a frozen-food business, which allows her to work out of the home, would give her more time to address constituent needs than the other candidates.

"To do an effective job on this Board of Supervisors, you need to be here {in Prince William} to respond to the needs and the concerns" as soon as they arise, Barratt said.

Catalano, a 35-year-old computer specialist from Long Island who works as a civilian for the Department of Defense, represents the most extreme views on growth and development of the Coles contestants, and perhaps of any Prince William candidate this year. Catalano maintains that Prince William government is run by a cadre of "good old boys" who enjoy cozy relationships with developers and one another.

"It's going to take some guts to stand up to these guys," Catalano said.

Catalano said the supervisors should reject development proposals that would have an adverse effect on current residents, and should defend their stance in court in the event a developer then sued the county. Critics of this approach, which was tried with no success in Prince William in the 1970s, said it results only in large legal fees and a reduced ability to extract concessions such as roads and school sites from developers.

Spellane has a clear financial advantage over his opponents. He said he hopes to spend about $12,000 to $15,000 in the campaign. Barratt said she will spend about $2,700 and Catalano said he will spend about $2,800.