A Maryland appellate court has set back plans for a proposed senior and child-care facility in a residential area of Mitchellville, saying the Prince George's County Council failed to offer sufficient reasons for approving the project over the objections of a top zoning official.

The proposal of William and Colette P. Youngblood to care for up to 112 elderly residents and 160 children in one existing and four new buildings on 7.9 acres has divided the surrounding communities. The increasingly nasty dispute has included charges that politics and favoritism played a role in the council's decision to approve the project.

While the $5.5 million project was being challenged in the courts, Colette Youngblood became chairwoman of a county task force on senior housing that advocated, among other things, more lenient zoning rules for such facilities. "She's been on all kinds of [county] task forces," said her husband, who said he was speaking on her behalf. The task force, he asserted, "hasn't played a role in this case at all."

Youngblood added, "Each side could point fingers over who made this a political situation." He said the latest development is "not necessarily an obstacle or a negative. We're not at all disheartened."

In an unpublished opinion this month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, declared that the council had failed to adequately support its decision to approve the project despite objections to the project from the county's zoning hearing examiner, Richard A. Romine.

The appellate panel reversed a Prince George's Circuit Court judge who had affirmed the council's approval of the project. It said the council had passed a "boilerplate resolution" that is "simply impermissible" and failed to justify the need for such facilities.

Having lost the latest round, the council can allow the decision to stand, seek review by the state's highest court or try to find sufficient grounds in the existing record to satisfy the court's objections. Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom) declined to comment "at this point," because he said the matter is under review.

"It's not over. They haven't lost," said Russell Shipley, attorney for the Youngbloods, who live in a large house on a half-acre lot in the Amber Woods subdivision, near where they want to construct the buildings on Lottsford Vista Road.

The couple owns a small group home for the elderly there with five residents, two full-time aides and a manager, a permitted use so long as the number of residents doesn't exceed eight. The house is set back from the road on a tree-covered hill. The Youngbloods bought the property in 1995 for $273,000.

Opponents, under the banner of Concerned Citizens of Lottsford Vista Road, contend the facilities would create too much density and increase traffic in their residential neighborhood. But other neighbors sided with the Youngbloods, asserting that the facilities are needed and would not hurt the neighborhood.

The area is zoned "rural residential." To allow their larger project to proceed, the Youngbloods needed three special zoning exceptions. The county planning board recommended approval. Then the zoning hearing examiner recommended against the adult day-care and living facilities but said that child care was acceptable.

Nonetheless, the council granted all the zoning exceptions in November 1997 after both sides had bombarded officials with stacks of petitions and also tried to contact council members directly, deemed improper under county rules.

Barbara L. Lovick, writing on behalf of Concerned Citizens, asserted in a letter that "citizens have been told by personnel working on behalf of the developers that this proposal is 'A DONE DEAL.' We cannot stand idly by and let new development be pushed through because of political connections."

And a letter from Colette Youngblood that was not accepted by a County Council member she was lobbying, Marvin F. Wilson, addressed her efforts to push for the project.

"Dear Marvin," began the letter to Wilson (D-Glenarden), whose district includes the site. "Billy and I" have suffered, Colette Youngblood wrote, due to "a small group . . . spreading incorrect information. . . . You told us everything was going to be all right, and we believed you."

She requested a private meeting with Wilson before the council hearing, adding, "I do understand fully that technically we are not supposed to be talking. This meeting would be completely confidential. . . . Part of the opposition's intent is to hurt us financially or competitively as other developers with more money and similar ideas come into the marketplace."

Youngblood wrote Wilson that opponents "had threatened you with persecution at the polls. . . . Marvin, we need your support now, more than ever before."

In the vote held on Nov. 24, 1997, Wilson abstained along with Estepp. Voting to approve were Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills), Stephen Del Giudice (D-Hyattsville), Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington), Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) and Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie). Member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) was absent. Only council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) voted against it.

"We are bound by the hearing record," Maloney said. "We're not free to do our own thing, willy-nilly."

Of the council's action and the court ruling, Concerned Citizens of Lottsford-Vista Road said, "Their rubber-stamp approach has landed this case back in their lap!"

William Youngblood Said, "We welcome the opportunity to go back in and explain . . . why there is a need for this project in the community."