A basket full of bright orange lapel buttons that said "Yes!" to proposed housing developments did more than enliven a dryly technical public hearing last week.

They signaled something novel in Charles County activism.

After years of being dominated by skeptics of growth, the development debate along the Route 210 corridor is attracting growth proponents.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Appeals took up the issue of whether to let the Hunters Brooke and Falcon Ridge housing developments move forward. It did not vote and set a further session for Nov. 23.

The subdivisions, which are being considered jointly, would bring 503 single-family homes to roughly 308 acres in western Charles County.

Opponents made their preferences known at Tuesday night's hearing, offering pointed questions about traffic growth and other likely consequences of the developments.

Proponents likewise were not shy.

"Yes! Hunters Brooke and Falcon Ridge," said the orange buttons they plucked from the basket and pinned to their clothing. At least one person carried a sign saying, "Indian Head Needs to Grow. Better Homes. Better Living."

The subdivisions are about two miles from Indian Head, a town of about 4,000 people that is struggling economically as jobs disappear from its financial keystone, the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

"We need these communities," said Evie Hungerford, an Indian Head public relations executive. "Who can be against $200,000 housing?"

It turns out plenty of people can. The subdivisions would be near the prized Mattawoman Creek, in an area of the county that planners had intended to shield from development for several decades.

Opponents say the area should be spared from leapfrog, sprawl-style developments that could harm the Mattawoman, a key fishery.

"It is a highly inappropriate proposal in an inappropriate place," said Patricia Stamper of Mason Springs. "The county made a mistake."

The projects began moving through the county's planning process before officials decided to shield the area from development. Their owners contend they should be allowed to go forward to build what they call an environmentally sensitive community, with extensive engineering to minimize the effects on the Mattawoman.

Tuesday's hearing was set in motion by the developments' opponents, who asked the Board of Appeals to overturn Planning Commission approval of the developments.

The opponents are basing their challenge on a procedural misstep, saying the developers missed a deadline to reapply for permission after the county changed its subdivision regulations in 1996. Because of this, opponents testified, subsequent Planning Commission approvals were improperly granted.

Attorneys for the developers said the purportedly missed deadline was not a deadline at all, and that the opponents' objections are based on their incorrect interpretation of the regulations.

The issue was narrow and technical, but broad philosophical differences were evident among the crowd of about 90 people. It seemed evenly split between growth opponents and proponents.

For example, half the crowd cheered when a lawyer said opponents' reading of the regulations would, if accepted, force the county to stop work at most housing developments in the county. The other half muttered its disapproval of that view.