The Prince William County Planning Commission has voted to recommend a long-term guide for growth that would limit future residential building in favor of commercial development.

Commuters, environmentalists and planners in this county of 230,000 are trying to use the new comprehensive plan -- the first major overhaul since 1985 -- to channel growth to areas already served by roads and sewers. They also hope to provide more jobs through commercial development in what has been largely a bedroom community.

But landowners in the western end of the county have protested that the new plan, which specifies acceptable land uses and dictates where new roads and schools will go, violates their right to develop their land as they please.

After several months of work, the Planning Commission Wednesday unanimously approved the plan, which would set aside more land for industrial growth and reduce the permissible amount of development in environmentally sensitive areas. The commission also agreed to divide county land into four classes, including a rural category, where growth is discouraged. That move has provoked the ire of many large landowners, who claim it reduces the value of their property.

"It's not up to the county to ensure that you make the maximum profit on your land," said Planning Commission Chairman Frank Milligan. "We've seen the impact of inadequate roads."

Counties around the metropolitan area are struggling with many of the same questions as they cope with the results of the rapid growth of the 1980s, which in many places left roads and schools overburdened.

Planning for the next decade invariably involves zoning code revisions and comprehensive plan updates filled with bureaucratic language. These documents can shape the county's future by specifying the location and density of residential and commercial growth, and determining whether the county's tax revenue will cover the roads, schools and services needed to support new subdivisions.

In Prince William, county officials are still trying to recover from a decade of massive residential growth that brought 85,000 new residents and left roads clogged and schools bulging with students.

The old comprehensive plan has been widely criticized as too vague and permissive, and planners, landowners and civic groups agree the county now needs office and industrial parks that would bring in revenue and allow people to work near their homes.

Landowners will get another chance to argue their case in the next few weeks, when the commission's version of the plan goes to the Board of County Supervisors for more public hearings and final approval.

The new plan "will unfairly force a property owner to develop at the low end of {permitted} density," said Elizabeth Nickens, who heads a group of western landowners who have consistently challenged the plan.

Her complaints are likely to be matched by demands from civic groups for further reductions in housing densities.

Hoping to deter the continued proliferation of subdivisions and make Prince William more attractive for commercial developers, the commissioners have set aside more land for commercial growth in the new plan than the county can use in the next 20 years.

"No matter how many restrictions we put on residential development, it's going to happen . . . but economic development is not going to happen unless there are options and the plan promotes it," said commission member Jack Clark.

The commissioners also voted to reduce by half the number of houses that could be built on nearly 10,000 acres that drain into Lake Manassas and the Occoquan River, both major sources of drinking water for Northern Virginia.

The comprehensive plan serves only as a guide and is used to evaluate development proposals. If land has already been zoned for higher densities than the new plan recommends, the supervisors would have to vote to "downzone" it to prevent development, something Prince William has not done in recent years.

PROPOSED GROWTH PLAN IN PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY

KEY COMPONENTS:

Policy areas: County land would be divided into four categories: high-growth urban centers, commercial and industrial areas, residential neighborhoods, and rural areas. Rural property owners say the plan unfairly limits the development potential of their land.

Economic development: The Planning Commission directed the county staff to create a section focusing on economic development. Some residents have complained that the plan would hurt Prince William's ability to attract economic development.

Environmental protection: The plan would require five-acre residential lots on 8,000 acres that drain into the Occoquan River, and one-acre lots on 2,000 acres east of Lake Manassas. Currently one-acre lots are permitted near the Occoquan and some quarter-acre lots are allowed near Lake Manassas. Both bodies of water are major drinking water sources.

Roads: The future road plan includes several controversial proposed roads, including Ridgefield Road, which provide a mid-county north-south alternative to Interstate 95 and Route 28, and a northern Route 234 bypass that would link Loudoun County with Interstate 66. Residents along the proposed highways say the roads would destroy their neighborhoods.