ANNAPOLIS -- Thirty-five years after sprouting its first strip shopping center, the Anne Arundel County commercial area known as Parole has developed a nasty case of middle-age spread. Now, with a feast of new development hovering on the horizon, county officials want to put Parole on a strict diet.

In an effort to create a leaner Parole, the County Council is considering legislation that would transform the 1,500-acre area, bisected by Routes 50 and 450, from the low-slung office buildings, block-long retail outlets and vast parking lots that define its form and would focus future growth up instead of out.

Parole "is the very definition of surburban sprawl -- unstructured, auto-oriented, without focus and consuming inordinate amount of land," said Charles Lamb, a retired urban planner who sat on a committee appointed by County Executive James Lighthizer in February to recommend guidelines for changing the area. "It is the deformed offspring of that urban design gem known as Annapolis," on whose western border Parole sits.

Using the city of Reston as a model, the proposed Parole Growth Management Plan being considered by the council would divide the area into three sections -- a core, center and periphery -- with different height and density limits for each. In the core, for instance, where development is intended to be most intense, an eight-story height limit would be in effect, whereas only four-story structures would be permitted in the periphery.

Under the plan's most controversial component, however, developers could apply for permits to build up to 16 stories in the core in exchange for offering incentives such as public art, public transportation, services such as post offices and laundromats, and regional storm water management systems.

Other aspects of the plan are intended to give Parole the atmosphere of a small downtown area. For example, developers would be required to build sidewalks and pedestrian bridges linking projects -- amenities that do not exist now -- and to set aside one-eighth to one-fourth of their properties for parks or other green spaces. The plan also encourages the development of apartments and mixed-use projects to give the area a 24-hour life.

Already, the plan has become the subject of intense controversy. Environmental groups, concerned that Parole will become another Tysons Corner, are lobbying the council to cut the height and density limits by half and to set an annual limit on the amount of new development allowed there. Under the proposed plan, 17.5 million square feet of development could occur in the next 15 to 20 years, about twice as much as exists now.

"We can't be sold on a few fountains here and a few awnings there and think how cute it will be," Colby Rucker, secretary of the Severn River Association, told the council at a public hearing Monday. "We have to think about what the cumulative effect of all this development will be. We already have a glut of hotel and office space."

The plan's proponents, meanwhile, say they doubt that many 16-story "landmark" buildings would be erected since developers would have to prove that adequate road and sewer capacity exists to accommodate their projects.

Among the plan's biggest boosters are the Annapolis Mall and the Anne Arundel Medical Center, both of which have projects planned for Parole.

The medical center has plans to build a 16-story mixed-use commercial building, which has been put on hold with a moratorium that is in effect while the council considers the new regulations. That plan would have to be scuttled if the environmentalists get their way, and the hospital's supporters have sent the council 398 letters in favor of the legislation.

Mall officials are planning to double the mall size, but it is unclear what effect the environmentalists' opposition would have on that project. The council is expected to study the bill and amend it in August and vote on it in September.