A citizens committee that studied a proposal to offer landowners cash in return for a promise to keep their land rural has recommended that the Loudoun Board of Supervisors earmark $4 million to launch the program.

The proposal--designed to preserve farmland, forests and historic properties by having the county purchase the rights to develop the land--is among a host of growth-control tools being considered by the board as part of its plan to keep rapid residential development from overtaking Loudoun's countryside. During a presentation to the board Tuesday, the committee suggested that the county seek to enter as many as 2,000 acres into the program each year.

"The goal of this program is very ambitious," said Helena S. Syska, a Sterling activist who headed the committee. "It's very aggressive. It says we want agriculture to remain in this county for a long time."

The proposal will be one of the topics of a public hearing Feb. 5. It calls for the county to offer landowners a one-time payment to limit development on their property. "This land would stay open . . . for perpetuity," Syska said.

Several supervisors said that although they support the proposal as a way to preserve open space, there is still a long way to go to work out details of the plan and funding.

"I like the idea, and I want to support it, but I don't know how we're going to get there," said Supervisor Bill Bogard (I-Sugarland Run). "I'd rather incur the one-time cost . . . than the long-term cost of more housing."

Supervisor Eleanore C. Towe (D-Blue Ridge) said it will be critical to examine the financial benefit of purchasing the property rights on land that otherwise likely would be developed. "I want to make sure we get a great fiscal analysis so we can make the point that fiscally it's a wise tool," Towe said.

The proposal acknowledges that significant local funding would be needed at the outset but urges the county to seek state and federal funding.

Some supervisors said they were encouraged by a proposal this week by Virginia House of Delegates Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) to provide much more money for land preservation. Wilkins announced Tuesday that he wants to increase state funding for a state preservation program, which accepts applications from localities and private groups, from the current $1.75 million to $20 million for each of the next two years.

"The whole point of this program is that so many localities have said they need help preserving open space," said Bob Riordan, spokesman for the Virginia chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which supports the proposal. "It's very much in sync with what Loudoun County is trying to do."

The idea of purchasing development rights to preserve Loudoun's farms and scenic landscapes was first recommended by the Rural Economic Development Task Force in its 1998 report. The citizens committee on the purchase of development rights then expanded the details of such a program, suggesting ways to administer the voluntary program and choose which properties should receive the highest priority.

The committee's proposal recommends selecting a mix of farmland and property with significant historic or natural resources.

Once a landowner expresses interest in the program, the property would be rated according to a scale that assigns values to the land's characteristics. Under the committee's plan, properties would be favored if the land is being farmed. Properties also would earn points if they are associated with a historic event or person, buffer existing developments or are close to wetlands, streams or woods.

Although the cost of development rights varies widely depending on the property, the committee estimated that the average cost of the rights for rural land is about $3,000 per acre. The average purchase price for a similar piece of land is about $9,000 per acre.

Acceptance of property into the program would not prohibit all development but would limit the potential uses. For example, the report recommends that on agricultural land, there should be no more than one house per 50 acres and that any houses should be clustered. Landowners with working farms also would be able to build new barns or storage sheds to keep their businesses running.

The committee, which estimated the administrative costs of the program's first year at $250,000 to $300,000, suggested that a board be created to oversee the program. The panel, with citizen representatives and one supervisor, would rank prospective properties and direct staff members during negotiations with landowners.

"This is one tool in many we're be looking at if we're really serious about keeping agriculture as a component in Loudoun's future," Syska said.