Howard County's much maligned planning director received a bit of vindication yesterday when his 20-year growth blueprint for the county was awarded a top prize by the American Planning Association.

Planning Director Uri Avin is the only department head that County Executive-Elect Charles I. Ecker has vowed to fire upon taking office. Ecker is not budging from that position, despite the prestigious prize won by Howard County's 1990 General Plan.

"He could be the best planner in the world," Ecker said yesterday, repeating a line he has used often since his victory over Elizabeth Bobo (D), "but he doesn't know how to deal with people."

Avin drafted the General Plan at home and is generally considered its architect. His work earned him statewide recognition Nov. 1, when he was honored by the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association. The chapter's parent organization, the nation's largest group of planners, bestowed one of its two top honors on the county last Friday when it selected the 281-page General Plan for its 1991 National Planning Award for Comprehensive Planning. The county learned of the award yesterday.

"Within the planning field, this is the award to get," said Karen Finucan, a spokeswoman for the 26,000-member organization of elected, appointed and professional planners.

"It's the plum," Avin said.

The award also was a bittersweet honor for the defeated Bobo, who had pushed the document through the County Council as the best way to manage growth in a rapidly growing county now burdened by congested roads and crowded schools. The plan ultimately failed to satisfy the county's slow-growth advocates.

Bobo called the award "immensely satisfying and rewarding . . . . I prefer to let the public decide if there's any irony here."

The General Plan calls for increasing development in the county but at a slower pace.

Ecker's election has clouded the General Plan's future. He has said it has "some good parts and some not so good parts."

"Lots of time, some wonderful planning work never gets a chance to work because of the political realities," said Angela Moore, the Henrico County, Va., planner who headed the planning association jury that culled through 143 entries in the contest that the Howard plan won.

Meanwhile, Avin said he is job hunting but doesn't know why he has been singled out by Ecker. The region's economic downturn has made it difficult for many Bobo loyalists to find jobs in local governments.

"It's not a very pleasant time," Avin said.