Charles County commissioners on Tuesday approved regulations designed to ensure that new home construction does not severely crowd schools.

The changes follow more than two years of study amid accelerating housing growth, with school and road crowding emerging as leading local issues.

The commissioners cast a series of 5 to 0 votes on Tuesday to set in place a policy that will have the Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners decide jointly each year how many homes may be built.

The boards are to be guided by the number of available seats in schools near a proposed housing development. If a school does not have available seats, officials will not allow new housing lots in its attendance zone.

County staff issued estimates late last month that showed room for housing growth in areas served by Thomas Stone High School and Lackey High School. But the figures also indicated that only 17 new housing lots could be accommodated in the fast-growing part of Waldorf that sends pupils to Westlake High School.

The figures leave developers unsettled.

"Those numbers don't bode well," said Robert Heier, Charles County vice president of the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, a trade group.

Commissioners in their voting Tuesday also increased the amount of money the county collects in so-called impact fees -- the fee collected for each housing unit to offset the cost of building new schools. The charge rises from $3,500 to $4,801 for a single-family home.

The new policy replaces regulations that have throttled the creation of new subdivisions in the county. Since late 1996, officials have been unable to approve large housing subdivisions because of school crowding.

Building has nevertheless continued, at a record pace of more than 1,000 homes a year. Much of the construction is carried out on housing lots approved in previous years. Some of it has occurred in small subdivisions that evade regulation -- a loophole commissioners closed on Tuesday.

Regional Teamwork Urged

The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland completed a round of public hearings last month on its vision for the region into the 21st century.

Gary V. Hodge, who left the helm of the council last year after nearly two decades as executive director of the state-authorized regional planning body, offered some long-term perspective in testimony he presented at the hearings.

The Southern Maryland Regional Strategy, as the planning document is known, is the culmination of Hodge's long labors for the advancement of regionalism. His testimony made clear that he remains enthusiastic for that approach.

"Today we live in an age of decentralized authority, of many competing power centers, of pluralism and diversity, of consensus-building," he said in written testimony submitted to the council. "In our time, few goals of significance can be achieved through the unilateral action of one leader or one governmental unit, or even by government without the cooperation of the private sector.

"Now it takes teamwork -- horizontally across the landscape of political boundaries, and vertically between all levels of government, local, state and federal -- to fund the really important projects and get things done that will make a difference in the quality of life enjoyed by our people, and enhance our region's prosperity and competitiveness," Hodge said.

It will take all the teamwork the region can muster, Hodge seemed to be saying, to fulfill the choice Southern Maryland would make by adopting the Regional Strategy: "Not to be just as good as everyone else, but to be better."

Right to Pray Coalition Forms

A handful of Christian ministers, elected officials and residents who want prayer restored at Calvert County high school graduations and other public school events have formed a lobbying group called the Right to Pray Coalition.

The group has been getting legal advice from the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian legal action organization founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

And it has been getting political advice from Calvert County Board of Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings) and State Del. Anthony O'Donnell (R-St. Mary's, Calvert) and State Del. George W. Owings III (D-Calvert, Prince George's, Anne Arundel).

Yet the group claims its mission of returning prayer to schools has nothing to do with politics or religion.

"Though we have a few politicians and clergy on our Executive Committee, this is not an issue of politics or religion," said John Remson, the chair of the committee. "It's an issue of protecting the freedoms that we are all entitled to. If through the actions of government officials we strip these young people of their freedoms, how will they, the future leaders of our country, be able to stand up for what is right, and keep America free?"