The Howard County Council lifted its limits on development early yesterday, becoming one of the Washington area's first suburbs to relax a growth-control policy in the hopes of resuscitating its real estate market.

By a 4 to 1 vote shortly after midnight, the council approved a bill sponsored by Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) that removes a temporary limit on the number of building permits issued.

The limit, which took effect in September 1989, quickly became a symbol of Howard County's struggle to control the forces that made it Maryland's fastest-growing suburb in the 1980s. The law was championed by then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) as a way to buy time for enacting more permanent controls on growth.

Originally scheduled to expire March 15, the limit will lapse when County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R) signs the bill, an action he said he hopes to take this week.

"I don't think this means that we are no longer interested in managing growth," Ecker said. "If we are doing anything, we are trying to return some consistency and predictability to the process."

Ecker said the county still plans to develop an "adequate public facilities" ordinance that would restrict development near congested roads and crowded schools. He also said he hopes to submit a proposal this year to rezone western Howard to protect farmland and open space.

The council's action to lift the limit on building permits about two months early runs contrary to the stance taken by its Washington neighbors. Prince George's County, facing a deficit of $72.5 million this year, is standing pat so far on its growth-control policies. Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter, who was elected in a wave of voter discontent over the fast pace of growth, has proposed that the county further limit construction. He has said the county should take advantage of the lull in development to change its policies so it is ready for the next boom.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors decided in October to appeal a court ruling overturning some development restrictions. The board has since voted to encourage businesses to move into the county.

Howard County builders and developers flocked to a two-hour hearing before yesterday's vote to plead for lifting of the limit. They said it proved to be more onerous than expected because some land owners hoarded permits, which prevented many from being used. The tie-up has contributed to the downturn in the county's real estate market, they said.

"It is bad enough for us to fight a real estate depression," developer Eric Schrank said. "Don't make us fight a rationing system as well."

Gray, who refused to vote on the limit the first time it came before the council, said the region's recession made it unlikely that builders would exceed the limit had it remained in place or been extended. By continuing to enforce it, the county would have been curbing development even though new revenue is needed to offset an expected $18 million budget deficit, Gray said.

"The cap far exceeded anyone's expectations for slowing growth," Gray said. "I don't think our vote has anything to do with the intent and purpose of our growth-management plans."

He noted that his legislation to dismantle the limit on building permits extends until Oct. 31 a ban on subdividing land in western Howard County. It also extends a prohibition against rezoning land to a higher density.

The bill also was amended by council member Darrel Drown (R-District 2) to state the council's intention to reconsider growth limits if more than 2,500 houses are built or permits issued this year.

Drown's amendment prompted council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) to vote against the bill. He said the amendment will have much the same effect as the limit in that developers will hoard permits to keep their options open in case the 2,500-house limit is reached.

But the provisions in Gray's bill do little to satisfy many slow-growth advocates. "There is no cap in place; there is nothing to prevent development from occurring in the {heavily developed} east," said Scot Hoeksema, president of a coalition of county civic associations.

In voting to remove the limit on building permits, the council rejected an attempt by council member Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1) to extend the limit for six months.

Pendergrass pointed out that County Council members had pledged in a previous non-binding vote before the November election to keep the limit in place until an adequate public facilities law could be enacted.

"I made a promise, and I wanted to keep it," Pendergrass said.

Several members of the development community, however, told Pendergrass she had also made a promise to them in 1989 that the limit on building permits would expire in 18 months.