University of Maryland student leaders said settlement of a federal lawsuit over the way the city of College Park draws its council districts will give students a louder voice in the decisions that affect an area many consider their legal residence.

College Park officials agreed last week to change the way the city draws its council districts, promising to use census data as well as the number of registered voters as a guide.

The agreement came as city authorities moved to settle a federal lawsuit brought by four students, part of a 15-year legal battle over what is fair political representation for the 12,000 students who reside in the city.

The lawsuit, filed more than a year ago, charged that the city's practice of considering only the number of registered voters to establish council boundaries limits students' political power because they are in a densely populated area that typically has a low rate of voter registration.

The current system divides registered voters about evenly among districts, despite disparities in the number of residents in the districts.

New districts approved by the council in June left the southern section, which includes dormitories and off-campus student housing, represented by three of eight council members. The southern area has about 60 percent of the city's estimated 23,782 residents.

The result is that students and residents in those areas are underrepresented, based on population size, the suit alleged.

"The districts were gerrymandered so that all the students were in one area in the south, and the northern part of the city, with less people, had all the power to make decisions," said Matthew Frey, a plaintiff in the suit.

Attorneys for College Park had argued that a 1982 Prince George's County Circuit Court order from a 1975 suit allowed the city to set district boundaries by registered voters as long as the number of voters in each district did not vary appreciably from a districting system that apportions by population. In that ruling, the court also ordered the city to review its apportionment every five years and conduct a voter registration drive to bring more students onto voter rolls.

Charles Fax, an attorney who represented College Park, said using registered voters is the fairest way to ensure an even distribution of voters throughout the districts. Under the settlement, city officials will be allowed to give greater weight to registration figures over census statisiics, according to Fax.

Student leaders said they hope the census figures will more clearly reflect their numbers and lead to additional council seats representing the areas in which they live.

But former council member Dervey Lomax, who represented a district largely made up of students, said there is little chance that students will become a political force in the city any time soon because most do not consider College Park a permanent home and do not register to vote.

"Regardless of any plan we accept, you're still going to have the same results . . . students have to make up their minds that they live in College Park and need to vote," said Lomax.

Frey disagreed: "I know that students are considered transient residents, but if they meet the residential requirement, then I don't think you should deny them the right."

Victoria Gruber, a plaintiff and president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland, pointed out that the council's "mini-dorm" law restricting the number of students in a rented house -- which students and landlords fought -- would not have passed had students carried enough clout on the council.

The suit's plaintiffs also said students are discouraged from registering to vote by the city law that closes registration 90 days before an election, rather than the 30-day deadline used by most counties and the state.

"The deadline left out blocs of voters: freshmen, transfer students or just those who went to their parent's home for the summer," said Frey, a College Park resident for three years.

The out-of-court settlement also requires the city to change the voter registration deadline to 30 days before an election and requires College Park to pay $35,000 toward the students' legal fees.

"I hope we have set a precedent that students {in other university towns} can follow," said Gruber. "I considered myself a citizen of College Park and yet I felt very underrepresented."