Before Alexandria voters help elect a new U.S. president in November, they will have a warm-up round in May, when residents go to the polls for the triennial election of a mayor and City Council.

Candidates have until March 7 to file with the Board of Elections, but campaign kickoffs precede that by months, so the field is coming into focus. Unless a surprise candidate appears, Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D), 43, will run unopposed for his second full term. Five of six council members are running for reelection, and at least seven challengers are taking them on. Council member Lonnie C. Rich (D) announced that he would not run for reelection.

Incumbents and challengers point to this election as an important one, largely because the new council will commence work just as Alexandria welcomes a new city manager for the first time in 15 years and because a few large developments recently have been approved or are seeking approval--including Cameron Station, Potomac Yard and the proposed U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

With recent routs of incumbents in elections in Prince William and Loudoun counties over the issue of development, many Alexandria candidates are fixing their attention on the topic, too.

"If I'm elected, I would propose a moratorium to stop the uncontrolled growth," said independent candidate Townsend "Van" Van Fleet, 65. "The council hasn't been doing smart development, it's been doing overdevelopment."

Van Fleet, a Capitol Hill lobbyist and retired Army colonel, hopes for a nearly complete turnover of the current council, whose members he says are "entrenched" and have "no vision."

Andrew Macdonald, 44, a local environmental activist, said he plans to announce his independent candidacy next week.

On the Republican front, council member William C. Cleveland, 51, a Capitol Hill police officer, is pining for a second or even a third party member to keep him company and to help resist "overdevelopment," which he said includes the Patent and Trademark Office and the proposed Visitors' Center next to the King Street Metro station.

Claire M. Eberwein, 43, a six-year veteran of the School Board, wants to be that second GOP member. The current council is overdependent on the planning department, she said, a mistake she said she would not make with her planning background. (Eberwein, who holds degrees in architecture and law and worked in Cincinnati's office of architecture and urban design, also served two years on Alexandria's Board of Zoning Appeals.)

In addition, she said, the council fails to integrate school planning into city planning. Her School Board experience, she said, would help mend that weakness.

The president of the powerful Old Town Civic Association, Douglas K. Wood, 39, also plans to run as a Republican. Wood, a residential real estate appraiser, lost a 1995 bid for the City Council when he ran as an independent in a special election.

Wood is critical of many of the city's recent developments, including Cameron Station and Potomac Yard.

"I would approve less development," he said. "It would have to meet a criteria that is neighborhood-friendly. . . . We're bringing people in faster than we can support them."

The field of seven Democratic candidates includes four current members of the council: Vice Mayor William Euille, Redella S. "Del" Pepper, David G. Speck and Lois Walker.

Euille, 49, is a product of the city's public housing and now owns a successful construction business. He said he is running for his third three-year term because he believes he has made "a big difference in terms of representing the citizens."

Euille acknowledges the "burdens" of the city's successful economic development but said he wants to serve on the council again to address those issues.

Pepper, 62, a member of the council since 1985 and self-described advocate for neighborhoods, said the next three years are "a critical time" for Alexandria because it holds less than one square mile of developable land and neighborhoods are feeling the crunch.

"I like to think I bring a good deal of experience to the City Council and a memory of what the city has done," she said, "and I think that's a very important asset."

Speck, 54, a stockbroker and possibly the most outspoken council member, hopes to capture his second full term as a Democrat--he served a Republican term in the early 1990s--in order to help secure the city's financial base.

"The city's financial underpinnings are still precarious," he said. "It's not one of those really sexy issues, but how we finance our capital and how we prepare for the future financially is really critical."

Walker, 60, who with her husband owns a real estate company, said she wants to continue her work on the council because "governing at the local level is the greatest challenge."

If elected to a third term, Walker said, she would focus on "smart growth, not no-growth" solutions, transportation issues and early childhood education.

The Democratic challengers are lawyer Patrick Anderson, 37, who ran three years ago as well; Paul Smedberg, 39, former head of the city's Democratic Party; and Joyce Woodson, 45, until recently a public housing commissioner in the city.

Anderson said his focus is on education, predominantly on funding prekindergarten and after-school programs.

"I don't know that there's as much communication between the School Board and City Council as there should be," he said. "I think there's probably more that the City Council could do to help influence how that money is spent."

Smedberg, director of government affairs with the National Health Council, is not critical of the council's record, but said he wants to be part of future development and redevelopment debates.

"In the next three years, the council will undoubtedly be faced with a lot of development issues, and I want to be part of that debate," he said.

Woodson, 45, a self-employed marketing consultant, said she has "the courage to talk to people," a quality voters want more of on the council. "There seems to be the feeling that City Council really doesn't want the end user at the table."

Woodson said she would focus her efforts on making the government friendlier, as well as increasing funding for and improving the city's public schools.

All council members are elected at large.