Prince William County's yearlong attempt to rewrite the document that is supposed to guide its growth and development has turned into a blueprint for debate and delay.

As a result, the value and future use of hundreds of thousands of acres in the county's largely rural western end are locked in bureaucratic limbo.

Some disgruntled members of the citizens advisory committee are talking about resigning. Landowners in the western end are screaming. The planning commission staff members warn that, because of the bickering and the modifications it has wrought, they will be hard pressed to complete the rewriting by the early fall deadline.

The combatants are fighting over the comprehensive plan, which will help determine what will be built in Prince William in the next 20 years. Environmentalists and commuters, who are trying to close the door on new residential subdivisions, find themselves in conflict with landowners who want to preserve the right to develop their property as they see fit.

"Everyone seems to have opinions about the quality of life {in Prince William}. The comprehensive plan is where it gets hammered out for the future," said Kathleen K. Seefeldt, the senior member of the Board of County Supervisors.

This conflict is being repeated in slightly different forms across the Washington area, because jurisdictions on both sides of the Potomac River are looking at growth and trying to determine how to channel it. That process inevitably means revision of comprehensive plans and zoning codes, and while the planning jargon may be boring, the results are important to the future of communities because they determine such matters as the residential-commercial mix, the density of development and whether there will be sufficient tax base to support the sewers, roads and schools that new subdivisions require.

In Prince William, the debate is strongest in the western part of the county, along the commuter corridors of Interstate 66 and Routes 15 and 29, where developers are eyeing thousands of rural acres.

The county's planning commission has just completed a month-long look at staff-developed proposals to change the existing plan, which has been widely criticized as too vague. The staff draft, which has been endorsed by the citizens advisory committee, provides for more regulation of commercial and industrial development, allows suburban residential development in some rural areas, and modifies the planned industrial corridor to allow for offices and high-tech development.

The commission members knocked out most major proposed changes in the process, and voted twice to reject the staff and citizens committee's vision of the county's western section in favor of an alternate, developer-endorsed plan calling for heavier residential and industrial development.

The supervisors will make the final decisions, and many expect them to hash over the issues again.

Prince William's problem comes from the explosive residential growth in the county's eastern end during the 1980s. The population jumped from 144,000 to 230,000, swamping schools, roads and other facilities. Many county residents and officials agree that Prince William needs to attract commercial and industrial development to broaden its tax base and allow commuters to work closer to home. But many developers view the county as prime housing subdivision territory.

The debate centers on two issues: Are the proposed staff changes too complicated and bureaucratic?

How should the Prince William midsection -- from the I-66 corridor to the Manassas Airport -- be developed? That area has long been viewed as the county's economic breadbasket.

Before the revisions got underway, developers, residents and public officials said they wanted a new plan to provide more guidance for rezoning decisions so lawmakers would have more control over the kind of growth that occurs.

The county staff and the citizens committee tried to oblige. They placed all of the county's land into one of four classifications or "policy areas" -- high growth urban centers, commercial and industrial centers, residential neighborhoods, and rural. The policy areas were further subdivided into planning categories.

The planners also included a scrutiny of nonresidential development by designating "floor-area ratios," which specify how many square feet of building can be placed on an acre of land, for each planning category.

But some planning commission members and supervisors found the policy areas and ratios unnecessarily complicated.

"The average landowner would go nuts," said Greg Gorgone, a planning commission member. "It seemed to constrain our ability to attract nonresidential growth to the area."

The commission voted to take the policy areas and ratios out of the plan and put them in the support documentation, which will not have the force of adopted law.

Citizens committee members complained the change would weaken the comprehensive plan by making it easier to amend.

"If {the policy areas} do not have the force of adopted law . . . it would be easy to overlook why {the land categories} were drawn the way they were," said citizens committee Chairman Sharon Baucom.

The planning commission also tackled the debate over two rival plans for the county's western development corridor. A county-sanctioned but developer-funded consultant last year proposed major commercial and industrial development for the 29,000 western acres from the tiny hamlet of Haymarket across I-66, and south to the Manassas Airport. The proposal, now known as the Linton Hall plan, also calls for urban-style residential growth in the prime development area along I-66 and Route 29.

The Linton Hall plan's supporters -- namely developers and landowners in the study area -- were furious when the county staff chose not to adopt their proposals. The staff argued that the proposals would overwhelm areas that should stay relatively rural, a position that drew praise from activists who oppose residential growth.

However, the planning commission, after heavy lobbying from several supervisors and the people who worked on the Linton Hall proposal, voted in favor of the Linton Hall plan.

"I'm just as pleased as I could be," said Elizabeth E. Nickens, a Gainesville resident who worked on the Linton Hall plan. "Our plan is understandable, justifiable and feasible."

But commission member Frank R. Milligan said, "the Linton Hall study is too market-driven, too developer-influenced."

Faced with widespread public criticism, the planning commission members Wednesday tempered their endorsement of the Linton Hall plan, saying they expect it to be altered significantly by the time it comes back to them for public hearings this fall.

The land use plan now goes back to the citizens committee. The planning commission and the supervisors will hold public hearings.