Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer) and his Republican challenger, Mark D. Tate, agreed Thursday that Loudoun County has a pressing need to slow growth and preserve its rural character. But they argued about who would be more effective in carrying out that agenda.

During a debate before about 60 people at the Middleburg Community Center, the candidates for the Mercer District seat on the Board of Supervisors each stressed that slowing rapid residential growth, funding schools and promoting tourism would be among their top priorities. Although they offered similar platforms, the candidates said their experience sets them apart.

The debate, one of a series in advance of the Nov. 2 election, was held by the League of Women Voters and the Sterling Foundation.

Burton, 62, touted his work as a slow-growth advocate on the board and, as a retired Air Force colonel, said he has the "time and energy to get into these issues."

Tate, 34, a Middleburg Town Council member and owner of the Coach Stop Restaurant, said the current board has dragged its feet in dealing with growth-related issues. Tate criticized the supervisors for internal bickering and said he would have more sway on a Republican-dominated board than Burton.

"One of the primary problems of this board has been their inability to get along with other boards, the citizens and themselves," Tate said.

The candidates noted that the Mercer District, which includes newer housing developments in southeastern Loudoun and the rural horse country around Middleburg, is representative of the county as a whole. They said it requires a balance between the pressing need for more services and road improvements in the east and the focus in the west on maintaining open space and preserving farmland.

Burton, who said slowing residential development should be the county's "primary objective," touted his efforts in co-sponsoring a proposal that would allow the county to slow development approved by prior boards. Under the proposal, the county would be able to stop issuing residential building permits if it cannot afford to build new schools. Supervisors have asked the state General Assembly for permission to enact the measure.

Tate said he supports pushing for more local authority to control growth but argued that the board has not been "unified" in lobbying the General Assembly to impose greater controls for local governments.

Tate also criticized the board for failing to conduct a comprehensive review of the county's general plan, which guides future development. He said that if elected he would seek to immediately begin such a review and find ways to control future growth.

When asked about the steps the county should take to handle a growing demand for schools and other services, Burton said officials need to attract more businesses to the county to expand the commercial tax base.

"We have to be particular about which ones we choose," Burton said. "We don't want businesses that need new residents."

Tate said he would propose a "line-by-line fat-cutting" of the budget to "make sure every dollar is being used efficiently." He also said the county needs to be more aggressive in pursuing state funding for education and other services.

"We need to get help from Richmond to pay for the economic engine Loudoun County has become," Tate said.

Burton said that although he would welcome financial support from the state, the county "needs to set out plans to deal with our problems by ourselves."

Both candidates said they would fight to maintain the rural landscape and support measures to stop speeding on Route 50, a main road into the county used by tourists traveling to Middleburg or farther west.

Tate attacked Burton and other current supervisors, saying the recent building of two new gas stations on Route 50 near the Fairfax County line tarnished the "rural gateway" into Loudoun.

Burton said that the board could not stop the owners from building because current zoning allowed for the development and that he had worked to persuade the owners to "tone down" their designs, provide landscaping and increase the distance from the roadway.

Tate and Burton both said that they support traffic improvements in the east but that paving or widening roads in the west would take away from the rural character and encourage unwanted development.