Balancing the demands of growth with the preservation of the rural character of western Loudoun was the dominant issue at the Blue Ridge District debate between Democratic Supervisor Eleanore C. Towe and her Republican challenger, Patricia S. Grigsby, on Thursday night in Purcellville.

Although the two agreed on the most pressing problem facing the area--an agricultural heritage that is rapidly being altered by development--they sparred over what local government should do about it.

Both candidates for the Blue Ridge seat on the Board of Supervisors said they would like to preserve farmland and keep farming viable, but they differed over the extent of involvement local government should have in the areas of preservation and spending to accommodate a surging population. The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Sterling Foundation, was one of a series in advance of the Nov. 2 elections.

Appearing before an audience of about 35 in the Loudoun Valley Community Center, Towe, 62, cast herself as a local resident who got into politics to "change how things were done."

She stressed her experience in pushing for slow growth--including support for such measures as impact fees for developers and an adequate public facilities ordinance, which requires that schools, libraries and other public buildings be in place when development occurs--while serving on a board that has repeatedly approved new development.

"I have a history and a record," she said. "My opponent has ideas . . . but no record."

Grigsby, 37, repeatedly stressed her political differences with Towe, calling the incumbent a "liberal Democrat" who can't be counted on to be conservative about county spending. Grigsby characterized herself as a conservative Republican who would work to keep a lid on tax increases.

"I agree with Mrs. Towe that what this election has to do with is very much a matter of record--her voting record. But I have a record, too," said Grigsby, a former research analyst and financial manager who served on a county tax equity panel. "I have experience . . . applying my financial skills. I have seen opportunities missed."

Towe said she found it "amusing to be called a liberal Democrat," given that she and her husband have "been careful with our [household] money for years."

"I had to run as a Democrat because the Republicans were the ones driving the engine of massive development," Towe said. "But Pat wasn't here then. She doesn't know what we were up against."

When asked how they would balance the increased need for county services against the desire of residents to keep their real estate tax rate (currently $1.11 per $100 of assessed value) from going up, the candidates took different tacks.

Grigsby said she would look hard at the county's capital improvements plan, making education and public safety a priority.

"Everything else in the CIP we should be willing to say no to," Grigsby said. "The highest priority is schools. What isn't talked about are the [other things]--the $17 million jail . . . and all the parks."

Towe said she has supported using available growth-management "tools," including developer impact fees and an adequate public facilities ordinance. If reelected, she said, she will press the state for more revenue-sharing money.

"To me it's very clear we must make developers pay their way," Towe said. "I think they should proffer to us the money for schools and libraries and the other services that we need. Our people who are here now who have lived here forever shouldn't have to shoulder the burden."

The candidates agreed that applications from landowners seeking to "downzone" the density of the development allowed on their properties should be moved speedily through the bureaucratic process.

On environmental issues, the two candidates also agreed on the importance of protecting water resources in western Loudoun, saying that the county's recently initiated effort to gather data on the location, amount and quality of that water could bolster efforts to slow growth in their district.