Just as flowers, shrubs and fancy signs are gateways to new subdivisions and strip malls, Prince William planners believe similar landscaping should beckon drivers as they enter the county.

County staff presented the Board of County Supervisors with a plan yesterday to beautify 21 "gateways" to Prince William off Interstates 95 and 66 and a dozen other roads at the boundaries with Fairfax, Stafford, Fauquier and Loudoun counties.

The plantings would compete with a lot of retail clutter on the county's main roadways. But here's the theory behind the flora: If you plant it, people--and businesses--will come.

"There's a greater feeling of organization and viability associated with the improved appearance of a corridor," said Sherman Patrick, special project manager for the Prince William Planning Department. "We have gateways into subdivisions and specific businesses. The logic is no different on a county-wide basis."

The county's roadways are not devoid of greenery. Over the years, many supervisors have used discretionary money to plant shrubs and bulbs along median strips and roadsides--but the result has been hodgepodge. Maintenance, the most costly expense of beautification, has stopped in many locations. The result has been a lack of uniformity.

"There hasn't been an orchestrated approach," Patrick said.

A large part of the appeal of a planting program is that it could help business development in Prince William, just by changing perceptions.

"Image is always important when it comes to marketing anything," said Randy Frostick, president of the Prince William County-Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce. "Part of economic development is marketing the benefits, the strengths, the physical beauty of this county."

County planners are proposing starting the landscaping project with two pilot sites: at Interstate 66 and Sudley Road, extending south from the interchange, and at Route 1 just south of the Occoquan River.

If it finds money for landscaping in the 2001 budget, the board could spend $12,600 to $55,000 for each gateway. That would include a sign welcoming motorists to the county and shrubs, trees and flowers that would be planted along median strips and roadsides.

Maintenance would be the biggest expense--weeding and pruning, irrigating, mowing and planting as seasons change. Maintenance can cost $4,500 to $12,600 annually for each gateway, Patrick said.

The county arborist would be charged with choosing hardy native species for the mini-gardens. Tree candidates include green spire lindens, willow oaks and London plane trees, Patrick said.

Within a few years, other "gateway" sites could include Lee Highway at the Fairfax County line, Nokesville Road at the Fauquier County line, Interstate 95 at the Stafford County line, Dumfries Road at I-95, Joplin Road and I-95, the Prince William Parkway at I-95 and Gordon Boulevard at I-95.