Growth control has been a top legislative priority of Northern Virginia officials for years, and for years the General Assembly has balked. Now both sides of that old debate are embracing a new approach: Don't restrict landowners. Buy them out.

Lawmakers from both parties and from all over the state are pushing major new spending to buy up some of Virginia's dwindling open space. For Northern Virginia, that would mean mostly parks and ballfields. In rural regions where land is cheaper, entire forests or mountainsides might be bought. Crafters of the plan envision a day when Virginia will have saved hundreds of thousands of acres from development.

"This is the kind of thing we need to do now because you can't do it later," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Callahan and lawmakers from both parties plan to push for a $40 million annual investment in land preservation, a sharp increase over the roughly $2.5 million spent on similar efforts this year.

Many states have had aggressive land preservation programs for decades. Maryland's Program Open Space, funded by a tax on real estate sales and transfers, has spent $480 million to protect 270,000 acres over the last 30 years.

Virginia has been comparatively slow with its efforts, relying mainly on private donations. But the political climate has changed this year. Environmental groups, advocates of growth control and many conservative, downstate lawmakers have embraced open space proposals. So have Civil War buffs eager to protect battlefields.

Supporters hope that Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) will include millions of dollars more for open space in his two-year budget proposal, the highlights of which he will reveal Friday in a report to the legislature's money committees.

A $3.4 million state purchase of Civil War battlefields threatened by development has been announced, and Natural Resources Secretary John Paul Woodley Jr. said another hefty investment in open space is unlikely.

"Budget-making is about making hard choices," he said.

But if there is not millions more for open space in the budget, lawmakers vow to add the money.

The appeal goes far beyond the fast-growing suburbs in Northern Virginia--where officials have lobbied for the authority to charge developers heftier fees to pay for schools and other services and for new laws empowering them to ration home-building. The development lobby in Richmond has defeated those efforts by appealing to the pro-growth and property-rights sensibilities of lawmakers from outside the urban parts of the state.

Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), who's slated to be elected the first Republican speaker of the House in a century when the General Assembly convenes next month, is no friend of growth-control efforts, which he considers an affront to private property rights.

Bankrolling a serious open space program, however, is one of Wilkins's top priorities, he says. It offers financial rewards to property owners rather than diminishing the value of their land as some growth-control measures do, he argues. And an open space program, like growth control, would allow Virginia to maintain more of its natural character.

"Virginia is a beautiful state, and actually tourism is one of our biggest industries," Wilkins said. "Unless we preserve the rural character and beauty of Virginia, you're going to lose a whole industry."

Michael L. Lipford, state director for the Nature Conservancy, is heading the coalition of environmental groups backing the open-space plan. He hopes to avoid the pitfalls that have thwarted slow-growth advocates when they come to Richmond.

"The reason that this kind of approach has a lot of appeal is it respects private property rights," Lipford said. "We're dealing with willing sellers."

The broad support for the idea does not necessarily mean smooth sailing in the General Assembly. Advocates, for example, have a hard time saying how much land $40 million might buy. Wilkins is working on a more modest plan worth $10 million, but he said he would consider a larger amount if the budget allows.

State Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) calls Wilkins's $10 million plan "a drop in the bucket" and the $40 million version only "four drops in the bucket." But both he and Loudoun County officials say a state program could be combined with matching grants from local, federal and private sources to help protect the open space from development pressures that have made Loudoun the nation's third fastest-growing county.

"I think this will be a very good program and a step in the right direction," said Scott K. York, chairman of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors.

York is also chairman of the Virginia Coalition of High Growth Communities, which is fighting for new laws authorizing "impact fees" charged to developers and other tools that would help local governments control the pace of growth. He says the open space program does little to further that agenda.

But lawmakers say both efforts are aimed at the same target: preserving the quality of life in communities in the face of rampant development. Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) says his Springfield district would benefit if the state paid to convert empty lots into parks, instead of waiting for the next wave of town houses to be built.

"This latest economic boom has shown everybody very, very quickly everything we've been losing," Albo said.