For the better part of the past two years, southern Howard County residents have tried to stave off encroaching development they say will threaten their quality of life, crowd their roads and schools and change the character of their rural community.

They are still fighting a proposed Rouse Co. project--a plan that would bring 1,200 houses and 1.6 million square feet of commercial space to land east of Route 29. The county approved the project, but opponents have appealed the decision and are fighting it in court. Another battle has resumed this month before the County Council, which sits as the Zoning Board, and it promises to be a lengthy, impassioned debate over what should become of a landmark turkey farm in Fulton.

Last week, the first Zoning Board hearing on the case brought out more than 100 area residents. Supporters of a proposed development say it has characteristics of smart growth and will lure industries to Howard County. Opponents say it's too much, too fast for that part of the county, which, because of available land and proximity to the Montgomery County line is the current hot spot in Howard County's boom.

Last year, the Planning Board recommended approval of the preliminary development plan.

"We're proud of what we're doing," said Stewart J. Greenebaum, president of Greenebaum and Rose Associates, the company that wants to develop the 508-acre Maple Lawn Farm west of Route 29. "What we're proposing is an anti-sprawl development."

Greenebaum is asking the Zoning Board to approve a preliminary development plan for a mixed-use project of residences and businesses. Over several years, the firm would build 1,168 single-family houses, town houses and condominiums, as well as about 1.3 million square feet of commercial development.

To area residents, many of whom live on one- to three-acre lots, that's too many homes concentrated near them.

"The focus of their concerns was the density that the mixed-use regulations permitted, and, as a consequence of the density, how that district could ever be compatible with a surrounding rural residential zone," said John Breitenberg, an attorney representing several communities opposed to the proposal.

The public hearings continued yesterday with an early victory for the opponents. Residents against the project complained when daytime zoning hearings were scheduled, and the board agreed last week to change yesterday's daytime hearing to a 6 p.m. start.

Other daytime hearings on the case may also be rescheduled. The hearings are expected to continue through October, and the board may not make a formal decision on the case until the end of the year.

Since the project was first proposed in the spring of 1998, Greenebaum has returned to the Zoning Board with more details about the development. Maple Lawn Farms would have four residential neighborhoods with about 500 single-family houses, 437 town houses and 236 condominiums or apartments. Prices would start at $150,000 for a condominium and go up to $600,000 or more for the largest houses.

Greenebaum said employment centers would be developed across from the residential area, so residents could walk to work. That component of the plan, he said, would be a major draw for employers.

"They don't want to be in some isolated business park someplace," he said. "They want a sense of community."

But many area residents are worried that kind of community would burden the area's roads, schools and other public services.

"What I can tell you generally is that the concerns of the [opponents] are in the areas of compatibility, density, traffic and school overcrowding," said Breitenberg, the opponents' attorney. He declined to elaborate further on the case he would present against the project.

In crafting its 1990 General Plan, Howard County designated that section of Fulton as a mixed-use area to encourage a combination of employment, medium- or high-density residential and some commercial land uses.

Joseph W. Rutter, the county's planning and zoning director, said a few people opposed to the Maple Lawn Farms project may be concerned about their property values dropping. But he said most opponents want to know, "Are we going to have to suffer as the county tries to catch up with the development because it's moving too fast?" The Zoning Board, he said, will address exactly that question. "That's really what it all should come down to," he said.