Three Howard County Council members are seeking to significantly lower the allowable density of two-thirds of the county's land, a move designed to save farmland and one that would greatly influence the future course of development there.

Angela Beltram, Ruth Keeton and Shane Pendergrass -- three of the council's five members -- yesterday submitted an application to rezone about 97,000 rural acres that would limit residential development west of Columbia to an overall density of one house for about every 20 acres. Since 1977, the county has permitted one dwelling for every three acres.

The changes would also require builders to concentrate their development on a parcel to "maximize the use of valuable agricultrual land." For example, the owner of a 100-acre parcel would be able to build five houses there, but they would have to be built on 5 to 10 acres of the property rather than sprinkled across it.

The proposed rezoning is bound to be a volatile topic in a county that has been struggling to protect its dwindling supply of agricultural land while accommodating suburban dwellers, some of whom have bought luxury homes costing an average of $500,000 in at least 25 subdivisions across Howard's western end.

But farmers and other landowners are protesting the proposal, saying that the lower density intended to preserve farmland would make their land less attractive to developers and prevent them from getting a good selling price for their property. Development could be slowed and what housing is built would be very expensive, they said.

When a similar proposal was made four years ago, some farmers drove a convoy of tractors to the county government building in protest and the measure was voted down. The new measure has a good chance of approval because a majority of the council supports it.

By yesterday afternoon, a group of farmers organized by council member Charles Feaga, a farmer who represents a rural district, had scheduled a meeting for developing a strategy to fight the proposal.

"That's called theft, not farmland preservation," Feaga said of his colleagues' plan. "We don't farm because we love to get out there and farm all day. We're farming because it's a way to make a living, and now someone has come along and said they are going to take away part of our retirement funds."

Donald Reuwer, the owner of a land development and real estate company who has been on the leading edge of the county's rural development, said the rezoning would definitely slow the pace of residential construction in western Howard and would also make whatever homes are built much more expensive.

According to Beltram, the current agricultural land policy, which allows higher density than in any of Howard's surrounding counties, has failed to stop expensive subdivisions from springing up in rural areas. The amount of growth in the pipeline already poses a threat to the county's tiny farming industry, she said.

The county Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing on the application for March 9, while the council, which also sits as the county zoning board, is supposed to meet to gather testimony on April 12. If the board approves the proposal that night, the new regulations could go into effect as soon as April 17.

Uri P. Avin, the county's director of planning and zoning, said that short schedule made it unlikely that panic-stricken developers and farmers hoping to escape the new policy would be able to submit subdivision plans in time to get them approved by his office.

If approved, the owners of plots between six and 20 acres would be allowed to have two houses on their property. The owner of a 21-acre site might be allowed to have as many as three -- the exisitng farmhouse, one for the first 20 acres and one for the additional acre.