The Isle of Wight, just off the Maryland coast on the way to Ocean City, is a marshy patch of pine land, home to wintering ducks and swarms of mosquitoes.

It's nothing extraordinary, say state officials who manage its 256 acres.

But this unimposing spot has spawned a hot debate, with area residents complaining loudly about a would-be partnership between the state and a private development firm.

The fight is over a proposed outdoor pavilion that Baltimore developers Nancy Hackerman and John T. Wright want to build on the Worcester County island under a state land lease. The 5,000-seat pavilion would be host to concerts for summer beach-goers from Ocean City, 2 1/2 miles to the east.

Residents say the facility, modeled after Baltimore's Pier Six Pavilion in the Inner Harbor, would hardly constitute the kind of land preservation they wanted when the state bought the Isle of Wight in 1984.

Developers and state officials say the pavilion would be a cultural boon to Ocean City tourism and that it's designed to blend with the island's landscape. But a November public hearing that drew scores of opponents has prompted officials to add a note of caution to their earlier enthusiasm.

"The question is, can the {development's} impacts be reasonably addressed? We think they can," said John R. Griffin, deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. "That doesn't mean we won't look at other locations."

Finding a suitable spot for the pavilion was a problem early for Hackerman and Wright. They originally wanted to build in Ocean City, but land was too scarce in that densely developed resort, said Wright, manager of Baltimore's Pier Six.

Looking west, the developers decided the Isle of Wight would provide a spacious, peaceful setting for a $5 million facility that would be host to up to three dozen summer concerts. The pavilion's design encompasses 25 acres, with two acres under a vinyl tent and another two acres for lawn seating. Twelve more acres would be cleared for a grass parking area and six to nine acres would become a landscaped buffer.

"We really have tried to be sensitive to the environmental issues," said Hackerman, owner of a film production company.

Hackerman said that surveys done last summer for the developers showed a large majority of those polled in Worcester and surrounding counties would welcome the pavilion. But that's not the message the developers heard at a public hearing on the project in early November.

Many of the 200 people at the hearing in Berlin rejected the pavilion proposal. They raised questions about increased noise and traffic on Rte. 90, which crosses the island, and about potential pollution of shallow coastal waters.

"I think that pavilion is totally incompatible with the use of the island," said Ilia Fehrer, a Worcester County environmentalist who is rallying opposition to the project.

A Maryland legislator instrumental in getting the state to buy the Isle of Wight three years ago also has objected.

"When I encouraged the state to purchase the island, I certainly didn't have this kind of development in mind," said Del. Mark O. Pilchard (D-Pocomoke).

Pilchard helped persuade the Isle of Wight's previous owner, Baltimore builder J. Thomas Requard, to sell the land for $750,000 to the state rather than to developers.

"I kept seeing the Isle of Wight as a kind of natural spot in the middle of a lot of development," Pilchard said.

Top officials at the Department of Natural Resources have praised the proposal as a way to improve state land at little taxpayer expense. But another branch of the department, the Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, said the facility is contrary to the service's task of managing the island for wildlife.

"Nothing would be of benefit to us," said Jim Mallow, the service's associate director.

Worcester County officials have their own questions about the project. The county's land conservation zoning covering most of the Isle of Wight may not permit a concert pavilion, said county planning director Harold Morris.

The pavilion has its supporters among local residents. Ocean City Mayor Roland E. (Fish) Powell thinks the facility would be a popular attraction.

"It's nice to have something a lot of people enjoy," he said. "Right now, that parcel of land is used by very few people."

Since the public hearing, project opponents have been organizing their case to take to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. They say they're worried that the project could set a precedent for the leasing of public lands in addition to the pavilion's potential environmental impact.

The developers, too, have been busy. Hackerman and Wright said they are working with natural resources officials on a detailed response to the issues raised at the hearing. Agency officials say they'll decide in the coming weeks whether to begin lease negotiations.

"I really think we have the answers at this point, and we should be able to proceed on it," Hackerman said.

One person who hasn't yet voiced an opinion is Schaefer.

"I don't think he's averse to the concept at all," said Louise Hayman, the governor's deputy press secretary. "But he sees two sides to this, and I don't think he's made up his mind."