Charles County commissioners eased proposed size restrictions on small single-family homes Monday and also decided the new rules should not apply to most areas outside the county's northern growth crescent.

On a 5 to 0 vote, commissioners said such homes could be as small as 1,650 square feet, compared with the minimum of 2,000 square feet they called for two weeks ago. They also eased demands that homes use brick.

The action came as county officials released figures showing that housing growth has slowed, mainly because of restrictions imposed earlier this year on town house construction.

The pace of growth is a dominant local issue in part because newcomers require additional schools, roads, policing and other services. The county budget strains to meet such demands, and residents say they face heavier traffic, school crowding and a change in the character of the community.

According to county statistics, the number of building permits issued through September was down 21 percent compared with the same period last year.

Applications for town house building permits dropped 98 percent, and the number of such permits issued dropped 74 percent. Through September, builders had filed applications to build 12 such units, compared with 568 applications at the same point last year.

Applications for single-family dwellings dropped by 1 percent, from 894 in the first nine months of last year to 883 through September 1999, while permits issued for single-family dwellings rose 8 percent.

Commissioners say stricter standards for single-family dwellings would avert a rush to construct inferior houses by builders thwarted by the town house regulations, which make town houses more expensive and subject them to complex regulations.

"The basic premise is, we don't have a problem with single-family homes today, but we don't want to have one," said Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large).

The proposed regulations go before the Planning Commission on Nov. 15. The commission issues a recommendation, and the proposal then returns to the elected commissioners for a final decision.

The proposal's minimum size of 1,650 square feet for new single-family homes is identical to the minimum size for town houses.

Commissioners unanimously voted for a minimum of 2,000 square feet on Oct. 5. Levy said conversations with constituents made it clear such a standard would affect too much of the housing market.

About three dozen people, many of them building industry officials, watched Monday's vote in the commissioners' La Plata meeting room.

"The feeling right now is any square-foot limitation is unacceptable," said Robert Heier, the Charles County liaison for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, a trade group.

The revised measure would affect the bottom seventh of the new housing market, according to figures prepared by county planners. The initial measure would have eliminated roughly one-third of new stand-alone homes.

The commissioners' vote on Monday called for the measure to apply in the county's development district, the northwestern fifth of the county designated to receive most residential growth. Houses in rural areas not served by sewer would not need to meet the minimum size.

In areas affected by the regulations, 10 percent of homes could be below 1,650 square feet.

Commissioners earlier had called for homes to be constructed of at least 25 percent brick. On Monday, they opted instead for a proposal that would have an architectural review board establish quality guidelines.

Without writing specifics into the proposed regulation, commissioners suggested features such as sun rooms or garages could be built in place of brick.

Of the approximately 1,500 new detached homes that received building permits in Charles County over the past two years, roughly 230 were smaller than 1,650 square feet, according to county statistics.

Levy said commissioners are "very satisfied" with such a proportion. "We just want to lock it in," he said.