Prince William residents next week will get their first formal chance to affect the way they want the county to develop over the next few years when the Planning Commission holds hearings on proposed revisions to the countywide growth plan.

The comprehensive plan serves only as a guide for land-use decisions -- zoning laws control actual usage -- but it is perhaps the county's strongest tool for managing growth because it sets out where schools, roads, and other facilities are needed, and the Board of County Supervisors can deny rezonings that don't conform with the plan.

First adopted in 1982, the comprehensive plan hasn't undergone an overhaul in five years, and the proposed revisions, which are now in their third draft, have been controversial.

County staff members, an all-county citizen committee that worked on the plan, and a separate group of landowners from the Haymarket-Gainesville area have questioned each other's judgment, impartiality and competence, and the Planning Commission in June stepped in to reverse some staff and committee decisions.

The debate so far has centered on how fast the county's western end, particularly the areas around Haymarket, Gainesville and Linton Hall Road, should be allowed to grow, whether sewer and water lines should be laid in previously rural areas and whether the current draft, which is substantially shorter and easier to read than earlier versions, has lost more than just verbiage.

Now the public and the Planning Commission will get their turn at two public hearings scheduled for Wednesday and Sept. 26. After the Planning Commission recommends specific changes, the plan will go to the Board of Supervisors for more public hearings and final adoption.

The draft plan includes a map detailing suggested land use and 104 pages of goals and policies for everything from parks to environmental protection.

"The emphasis was placed on text as just as important an ingredient as the map," said Planning Director Douglas James. "Hopefully, the plan will set forth rules more carefully . . . {and} our negotiations {over rezoning requests} will not be as laborious or lengthy."

Most county property owners will find their land's potential use unchanged or slightly narrowed, because the 1990 plan provides more specific guidelines than did its predecessors. For example, most of the land along the planned Route 234 bypass north of Sudley Manor Drive is proposed only for heavy industrial use, such as steel plants, rather than all kinds of industrial uses, which include warehouses.

Several key areas are substantially different in the 1990 plan:

The tip of Cockpit Point in Woodbridge is designated for five- to 10-acre lots in the 1990 proposal while the current plan calls for heavy industrial uses on the environmentally sensitive peninsula. That change may represent wishful thinking, because much of the land (part of The Anden Group's massive proposed Southbridge project) is already zoned for industry.

Several hundred acres west of the Independent Hill landfill previously designated for one- to three-acre housing lots are proposed for office or light industrial use in the 1990 plan. At the same time, a large tract just southeast of the landfill would switch from office park designation to one- to five-acre lots.

Most major road intersections in the county's western end would be planned as high-density regional employment centers that could include offices, apartment buildings and hotels. Examples include the Interstate 66 and Route 29 interchange at Gainesville, and the planned Route 234 bypass and Route 28 interchange near the Manassas Airport.

The previously rural areas around Gainesville and Haymarket would undergo perhaps the greatest change if the new proposals are adopted. The 1990 draft calls for urban densities -- up to 30 homes per acre -- and low-rise employment centers in this previously unsewered area.

Still, some landowners in the Gainesville-Haymarket area don't think the proposed revisions go far enough. At a community meeting held last month, sponsored by Supervisor Robert L. Cole (D-Gainesville), these landowners continue to push a plan they put forward last winter that calls for denser residential growth and more commercial and office development.

Citizen committee members also have been critical of the third draft's attempt to streamline and simplify the much lengthier earlier versions.

"They took the teeth out of the draft. We were very disappointed," said Vicki McDermott, who represented Brentsville on the committee.

Planning staff members counter that many of the changes came at the request of the Planning Commission, which found the earlier drafts too complicated, and that some of the specific ideas that were scrapped will reappear when the zoning ordinance is revised later this year.