Driven partly by disquiet over crime, civic leaders in St. Charles are launching a drive to turn the housing development into Charles County's largest municipality.

If the proposal succeeds, St. Charles, home to roughly one in four county residents, would get a mayor and an elected council.

They would oversee increased police protection and greater attention to such needs as snow removal, road maintenance and grass cutting on road shoulders and medians. Schools would remain a county prerogative.

The additional services would be financed by new taxes on St. Charles residents, who number 33,000 or more. The amount of such a tax increase has not been determined.

The creation of a St. Charles government would involve a process known as incorporation, or establishing a municipality with powers of its own. Currently, St. Charles--like the wider Waldorf area that it anchors--is unincorporated.

That means St. Charles residents--like those in Pomonkey, Issue, Hughesville and rural areas of the county--are represented in local government by commissioners who are elected on a countywide basis.

Some St. Charles leaders say that because their community is densely settled, it needs closer attention than can be given by a county government that serves more than 120,000 people.

"What we're trying to do is get a better quality of life for the people of St. Charles, and make the government more responsive," said Scott Nasiff, president of the Westlake Village Council, a coalition of homeowners in the St. Charles neighborhoods west of U.S. Route 301.

In addition to an elevated crime rate in some neighborhoods, St. Charles has endured sagging real estate prices, with most town houses and many single-family homes losing value, according to state figures compiled in 1997.

Incorporation would follow a complex process that includes a petition drive and a referendum, and could take 18 months or longer to unfurl.

The impetus for incorporation is coming from the St. Charles Council, an elected body that represents homeowners. Its members have been presenting the rough outlines of an incorporation proposal at meetings of homeowner associations in each of the seven St. Charles neighborhoods.

Shortly after the new year begins the St. Charles Council will consider whether to carry the idea further, Nasiff said.

The preliminary proposal envisions a 37-member police force that could have seven police officers on duty at all times, which Nasiff estimated would double the coverage provided by the Charles County sheriff's office.

Street crime has emerged as an issue in St. Charles, especially in its older neighborhoods east of Route 301 that make up Smallwood Village. The area has been designated a crime "hot spot," a state label that brings extra funding for an array of anti-crime programs.

Smallwood Village accounted for about one-fourth of the county's juvenile narcotic arrests, shootings and vehicle thefts in 1996, when it contained little more than one-fifth of county residents, according to figures compiled for the state hot spots program.

The sheriff's office is seeking to add Westlake Village to the hot spot program, spokesman Craig Renner said. He said the move does not indicate a high crime rate so much as it signals an intention to prevent crime increases in Westlake Village.

The area to be incorporated would include the regional shopping mall and other commercial areas at the heart of Waldorf, but would not include residential neighborhoods outside St. Charles, Nasiff said.

St. Charles would rank among the largest of Maryland's 157 municipalities. The seventh-largest municipality, Annapolis, had 33,585 residents in 1998, according to the state Office of Planning.

Charles County has two other incorporated towns. La Plata, with an estimated 1998 population of 6,663, was incorporated in 1888. Indian Head, with 3,806 residents, was incorporated in 1920.