Opponents of a plan to build 503 homes in the rural Mason Springs area of Charles County say they will continue efforts to scuttle the project, despite losing the most recent round.

The Board of Appeals, in a 3 to 2 vote last week, decided the county's Planning Commission acted properly last year when it granted an extension of time to the Falcon Ridge and Hunters Brooke developments near Indian Head.

Opponents almost certainly will ask the Charles County Circuit Court to rule on the issue, said Benjamin Woolery, an attorney for residents who oppose the 308-acre housing plan.

The linked developments, about two miles from Indian Head, have emerged as a polarizing issue in western Charles County, which is struggling economically.

Proponents say new housing is needed to spur growth, while opponents say the developments would bring disruptive sprawl development to a quiet corner of the county.

Several dozen supporters from both sides turned out to watch Tuesday's vote by the Board of Appeals, a county body that can overrule the Planning Commission. The appeals panel heard lengthy testimony last month.

On Tuesday, the panel made its decision quickly. Members focused on whether the Planning Commission may act by consensus--by simply agreeing, without recorded vote, to approve certain actions.

The Planning Commission, using the consensus mechanism in March 1998, deferred for two weeks its consideration of whether to grant a one-year extension of its approval for Hunters Brooke, which is to include 322 houses.

Opponents argued that the two-week delay pushed the project beyond a deadline for renewal.

The Board of Appeals discussion focused on whether the Planning Commission was correct to grant the two-week extension and largely steered clear of a debate on the merits of the proposed developments.

Board member Kenneth White indicated that the Planning Commission had acted within its authority. "I don't believe you can undo everything that went into this," White said.

Board member Richard Koch said acting by consensus was tantamount to taking no action at all.

"I don't agree that a nod of the head is acceptable. I believe you have to raise your hand and say, 'Yes, I vote for this' or 'I vote against this,' " Koch said.

Koch and Jon Johnson voted to rescind the Planning Commission's approval. Voting to uphold the approval were White, Dorothea Smith and A.J. Perk Jr., the board's chairman.

John Stamper, an opponent of the developments, called the decision "too bad."

After the vote, development opponents met briefly in a side room, where they were urged to oppose the permit the developments will need to sink a well for the homes' domestic water use.

Although they will use well water, the developments will send their sewage to the nearby Mattawoman Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The developments are in a portion of the county designated to be shielded from development for 20 years. However, Hunters Brooke received its preliminary approval before the area was placed in the deferred category.

George Brugger, an attorney for the developer, called the Board of Appeals action "highly significant" because it removes one more obstacle to the project.

In addition to routine administrative approvals, the developments need the permit for the well and for a road across wetlands, Brugger said.