Fairfax County supervisors said yesterday they probably will appeal a judge's decision overturning the county's tough development restrictions, and that they may draft a new law cracking down on growth.

Board members and civic activists said they were distressed that Fairfax Circuit Court Judge William G. Plummer overturned the so-called downzoning on procedural grounds, without ruling on the merits or substantive planning issues raised in the case, such as whether the board was legally empowered to scale back development.

"My reaction is one of controlled outrage that the litigation at this juncture has basically been decided against the county on procedural grounds on a matter which substantively is of such great importance to Fairfax," said Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). "It creates legal entanglements and more questions than answers at this point, and it will not be easy to unscramble."

On Wednesday, Plummer overturned last December's action by the board restricting office building development on more than 14,000 acres of commercial and industrial land across the county. The judge said the law was improperly drafted, vague, riddled with mistakes and approved by the board without an adequate statement of the underlying public purpose.

The General Assembly had already overturned about a quarter of the downzoning in the Route 28 Special Tax District near Dulles International Airport.

"The procedural matters at issue were not just technicalities, but raised issues as to whether . . . the supervisors acted properly," said C. Thomas Hicks III, president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Industrial & Office Parks. "That's what this trial was all about, to see if it had been done right, and in fact it hadn't."

John R. Walk, an attorney for the county, said immediately after Plummer's ruling that he would recommend that the board appeal the decision. "Do I think the judge erred in his ruling? Absolutely right," Walk said. "We see the issues differently from the way they were called."

While a majority of board members said they will wait for a briefing from the county's attorneys before making a final decision on an appeal, most said they would be strongly influenced by their lawyers' recommendation.

It was unclear what, if any, political fallout would result from Plummer's ruling, which is the latest in a long series of setbacks for the board in general and Chairman Audrey Moore in particular. Enacting controls on growth was a key part of Moore's election platform three years ago.

Supervisors said they were dismayed by the judge's ruling that the board had not stated a valid public purpose for the downzoning, noting hours of public hearings and voluminous staff reports on the issue. The judge, noting that the Dec. 11 board meeting at which the downzoning was approved was somewhat chaotic, said he didn't understand why the board could not have waited another week to clear up the confusion before approving the ordinance.

"I think we did the best we could, but it was handled rather loosely, and maybe we're suffering the consequences," Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D-Lee) said yesterday.

Developer John T. "Til" Hazel said the judge's ruling was "strictly an issue of credibility. They {the board} never made a case for why it was necessary, and they paid a very high price to achieve some sort of political trophy."

A particularly tough question, the supervisors said, is whether to try to draft and adopt new development restrictions if the board decides not to appeal Plummer's ruling or loses on appeal.

"I don't think it's an option to do nothing," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Annandale), who said she favored either appealing the ruling or "initiating a new ordinance . . . . We had a mandate {when elected in 1987} to try to control growth and improve transportation, and this was step one."

Other supervisors, however, said the area's grim economic picture was a prime reason to delay consideration of another downzoning.

"I don't think we should appeal {Plummer's ruling} at all," said Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield). "There is no growth issue in this county right now. Growth is dead. The fact is that we're killing the businesses that are helping to keep our tax rate down, and we're using taxpayer dollars to do it."

Noting that the state legislature passed a law this year that could exempt many projects in the county from future downzonings, Winnie Shapiro, head of the county League of Women Voters, said the county must appeal Plummer's ruling because any new ordinance would not be as far-reaching.

The General Assembly action, she said, "really crippled the county's ability to manage growth, and if we lost the {downzoning case} in addition, it would be the final nail in the coffin, and it would leave the development community in control" of the county's growth.

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report from Richmond.