A Fairfax Circuit judge ruled yesterday that the county Board of Supervisors violated Virginia law when it closed its doors last year to discuss proposals to reduce development.

Chief Judge Lewis Hall Griffith said that the board met in illegal executive sessions on four occasions while it was considering reducing the density of development permitted on about 14,000 acres zoned for commercial and industrial uses.

After those closed meetings, the board adopted in open session a major "downzoning" of commercial and industrial property. The Virginia General Assembly subsequently voided about one-fourth of the downzoning and various interests filed about 260 lawsuits, still pending, challenging the action.

The ruling does not appear to affect the downzonings, according to officials. Carson Lee Fifer Jr., an attorney for developers, said, "It doesn't sound to me" that the ruling "would have that much importance to the downzoning suits" or the legislative action. He said developers are arguing in their suits that the closed meetings were a "procedural defect . . . that the judge should take into account in determining the validity of the downzoning."

Griffith found that the board did not knowingly violate the law, but was acting on the advice of its attorneys when it barred the public. He denied a request for civil penalties against the supervisors, who could have been fined up to $1,000 each.

County Attorney David T. Stitt, who provided the supervisors with legal advice during their deliberations, declined to comment.

"We're obviously gratified," said Richard T. Starnes, editor of the Fairfax Journal newspaper, which launched an aggressive crusade -- first in print, then in court -- against the closed meetings. "The decision was very clear and unambiguous. He {Griffith} said the meetings were illegal, as we had charged they were."

Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert said the supervisors would have to decide whether to appeal the ruling and declined further comment.

Supervisor Lilla Richards (D-Dranesville) said she favored appealing the decision. "I don't appreciate being made out as guilty of something I didn't do on the basis of someone else's statements," she said, noting that no testimony was heard in the case. "It's like being guilty without having a chance to defend yourself, and I don't think that's fair."

Griffith found in his bench ruling that the board violated the state's open meeting laws when it went into executive session on Nov. 28, Dec. 4, Dec. 5 and Dec. 11, and said he would enjoin the board from meeting illegally in the future.

The case marks the second time that the courts have found the Fairfax board in violation of open meeting laws. In 1982, the board was found guilty of deliberately meeting in an unannounced, secret session to redraw the boundaries of the county's eight political districts.

Members of the board have said that the downzoning sessions were legal because state law allows for closed meetings when sensitive matters such as personnel actions or "actual or probable litigation" are being discussed. The supervisors said at the time that they were discussing the legal ramifications of the proposed downzoning, which they expected to be vigorously challenged by developers and landowners.

Griffith said the board took too broad an interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, noting that provisions exempting certain proceedings from the law were supposed to be narrowly interpreted.

"The judge seemed to emphasize that you are not supposed to use the exemption as a catch-all to avoid the open meeting provisions," said Martin Wald, a Journal attorney. "He seemed to be telling them that if you want to hold a meeting under this exemption {for pending litigation}, you have to have a very specific legal matter you want to discuss."

One of the complaints at the time of the meetings was that the board, instead of discussing strictly legal matters, might be using the sessions to achieve a consensus on a controversial issue that would have been difficult to reach in open session.

That impression was bolstered by comments made by Board Chairman Audrey Moore. When one supervisor said she could not attend one of the executive sessions, Moore urged her colleagues to reschedule it so they would not come "to some kind of consensus without" the member. When another supervisor corrected Moore, saying the board would not reach such an agreement in private, Moore responded, "They were rolling in that direction this morning."

Moore could not be reached for comment.