The task force charged with recommending priorities for Howard County's 2000 General Plan had a broad, and intimidating, mandate: "Identify those issues most critical to the county's well-being over the next two decades."

The General Plan, which is revised every decade, has been at its heart a land-use guide. But a county is a complicated set of related systems, wherein building a house might mean sending a child to school, moving in a senior citizen with health needs, adding yet another commuter to Route 40 or taking up space that could have been used for a ballfield.

So the report the task force issued last week, which residents can comment on at a public hearing tonight, touched on all sorts of issues--from schools to deer, from sidewalks to health care.

A few themes sounded throughout: whether the county should focus on building the new or redeveloping the old. What can be done to protect the environment. Whether the existing relationships and organizations that link Howard to its neighbors are working.

"The issues aren't so much for growth and balancing growth, as it was in the past, but rather looking at the best means for continuing and enhancing communities we already have," said task force Chairman Jim McGowan, a leadership professor at Johns Hopkins University and former associate school superintendent. The overriding theme, he said, was, "what does this county want to look like?"

The report, for the most part, is filled with question marks and "whethers." The task force's job was to pinpoint areas that need to be looked at--not to tell the county what to do. The 32-member panel was appointed in April by County Executive James N. Robey (D).

"I would have to say as we were working it through we might have had some 'shoulds' in mind, but what we did was look at the general issues," McGowan said.

The topics ranged from the specific ("Encourage the use of native species in landscape plantings") to the broad and philosophical ("Is agriculture worth preserving?"), and the recommended priorities frequently stretched well beyond the county's boundaries.

For example, it asked whether Howard should do anything to help revitalize urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods of Washington and Baltimore. It asked whether Howard should concern itself with the effect its zoning policies have on other regions.

And it brought up the point that while the jobs coming to Howard are relatively low-skilled and low-paying, the housing being built here is typically single-family "upper-end" housing.

The General Plan, the task force suggested, should look at what this means for roads and public transportation and for the effort to bring in jobs.

The report raised the issue of whether Howard should do more--through zoning regulations, taxes, land preservation rules, an agricultural resource center--to ensure the economic viability of farming, so that existing farmers can make their livings, and so that western Howard retains its rural character.

Other suggested priorities include water quality and waste management, enforcement mechanisms for environmental and historic preservation, and schools--the impact of redistricting, and ways to maintain equity between old and new schools.

The report also delved into the area of "community enhancement," asking, for example, how to involve residents in planning, how to encourage walking and public transportation, whether gated communities should be permitted and whether the county would benefit from a transit hub or a performing arts center.

Tonight's public hearing on the report will be at 7:30 at the Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Dr., Ellicott City. The task force report and further information about the General Plan are available on the Internet at www.co.ho.md.us/PZ/genplan.html.

Considering the task force's recommended priorities, the Department of Planning and Zoning will issue suggested guidelines to the County Council, which will adopt guidelines in the fall. Then Planning and Zoning staff will draft amendments to the General Plan, and final approval is scheduled for next spring.