The Republican challengers in this year's County Council races are trying to break the Democrats' 4-to-1 council majority by blaming them for growth that has led to congested roads and crowded schools.

But the Democrats have a ready answer: "If you are going to blame Democrats for the problems, then you have to give the current council credit for taking steps to improve the quality of life in the county," summed up C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who faces no challenge for his District 3 seat in eastern Columbia.

The debates between individual candidates of the two parties have taken on an increasingly parochial flavor this year because of Howard County's decision in 1986 to elect council members by district instead of countywide. Republicans, particularly, have tried to capitalize on the change.

"It is the people in the district who will elect them, so that's how they are going to run," said Carol Arscott, head of the county's Republican Central Committee.

Every County Council incumbent except Gray faces competition in the Nov. 6 general election.

The parochial flavor of the contests this year is the most clear in District 1, which covers the eastern part of the county from Elkridge to North Laurel, including the southwestern Columbia neighborhoods.

Republican Dennis R. Schrader, 37, is making his first run at a seat held by Democrat Shane Pendergrass by accusing the incumbent of not doing enough for her district.

Schrader said he would resist any increases in zoning in the east but would take advantage of the development potential of the still-rural western part of the county.

He also has questioned why Pendergrass has supported buying farmland development rights. He said District 1 residents need the money for better roads and more schools.

"In the east, we need time to catch up," Schrader said.

Pendergrass, 40, said she has taken several steps during her four-year term to slow development throughout the county, including the east. She contends that Schrader would not show the same commitment.

"He believes in a market-driven economy . . . . I don't agree with him, but I respect him for that," she said.

She said her commitment to manage growth is reflected in the fact that she has received the endorsement of her opponent in the primary, William C. Smith, who favors slow growth.

Pendergrass hasn't been afraid to challenge the Republican along parochial lines of her own.

"He {Schrader} hasn't lived here long. And he hasn't been involved in the issues," Pendergrass said, contrasting her own record as a 12-year resident and civic activist in Savage and Columbia with that of Schrader, who settled in Columbia in 1987.

In District 2, Republican Darrell Drown has been promising district residents that he would support a move to allow developers in the west to buy development rights from property owners in the east. District 2 covers the Ellicott City area in the northern center of the county.

"We could confine the new development to a village along the Interstate 70 corridor and help relieve the development pressure in the Ellicott City area," said Drown, 39, a budget officer for the Howard County public school system.

Angela Beltram, the Democratic incumbent, who favors transferring development rights only within the same district, said the proposal ignores the legislative reality of working with members of different districts.

"It's always easy when you campaign by district to say you will do something to another area," she said.

Beltram, 51, said she doesn't feel vulnerable on the growth issue because she, more than any other council member, has led the fight for controls during her first term.

"I like to remind people that I brought forward the first legislation dealing with adequate public facilities in the county," Beltram said.

The county's "adequate public facilities" plan would regulate the pace of development in areas where schools and roads are overburdened. Its details are still being debated by the County Council.

The contest in District 4 has been one of the most low key. Republican Michael J. Deets, 25, spends little time trying to raise money or build an organization in "I like to remind people that I brought forward the first legislation dealing with adequate public facilities in the county."

-- Angela Beltram (D-District 2)

his bid to unseat Paul R. Farragut (D).

Instead, Deets relies on door-knocking and candidate forums, where he is quick to note that he is the only candidate in District 4 who "grew up in Columbia."

Deets played a key role in the events that led the county to scrap its system of electing council members countywide. He gathered names needed to put the question to a referendum. And when voters approved the change, he submitted a plan to the County Council detailing how the county should go about making it.

Now the Wilde Lake representative on the Columbia Council, Deets has criticized County Council members for often allowing the county executive to control the agenda.

"The County Council should have a degree of independence from the county executive," he said. Currently, "it's a closed process."

Farragut, 48, has responded by reminding voters that he has lived in the western Columbia district for almost as long as Deets is old, and said he views himself as an independent thinker.

As proof, he said he was not the administration's choice to be appointed to the County Council seat when member Ruth Keeton retired in April 1989 because illness. However, the Democratic Central Committee selected him.

"I was not tied into the power structure," said Farragut, who is running for the first time.

D. Susan Scheidt, 50, began her campaign to unseat Republican Charles C. Feaga in District 5 by walking 32 miles across the rural west county district to meet voters. Scheidt often begins her remarks at candidate forums by saying she is a 42-year resident of the county who manages a family farm near Highland.

Scheidt said she would support a proposal by County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) to change the zoning in the west to allow builders to cluster development if they maintain an overall density of one house to every five acres.

Feaga, 57, also is a lifelong county resident who owns a farm in the western part of the county. While he supports giving developers the option of clustering development on their land, he wants to retain the current zoning, which allows one house for every three acres.

He also said he has consistently supported attempts to cut taxes, including a recent move to limit yearly assessment increases at 5 percent.

His action was prompted in part by complaints he received from constituents last year. The measure would not limit tax revenue because the County Council could still adjust the tax rate.

Scheidt said she would like to see more information about what the limit would mean to county revenue before deciding whether she would support the proposal.

However, she said the limit would affect only people whose property assessments increase more than 5 percent a year and, therefore, "some people win and a lot pay some extra money."