In an attempt to preserve some of Stafford County's rural character, officials there are moving toward a significant cut in the number of homes developers can build -- something their neighbors to the north have already done.

As it stands, builders are permitted to construct one home per three acres in parts of the county -- about half its area -- zoned for agriculture. The result is that the county's open space is fast being consumed, as builders look beyond densely developed areas for places to put new communities, say supporters of two proposed zoning laws that would change that. What's more, critics of the status quo say, the county gets no compensation from developers under the current setup.

Under the proposed changes, builders would still be able to carve a majority of three-acre lots, but the subdivision would have to average one home per 10 acres. That would mean a 100-acre plot, for example, could have nine three-acre homesites -- totaling 27 acres -- and one 73-acre site.

Supervisors say this achieves their goal of slowing development and protecting open space, while still giving developers the benefit of building homes relatively close to one another if they so choose.

"Nobody really wants to see 10-acre lots sprawling across the landscape," said Supervisor Peter J. Fields (D-George Washington), an architect of the new measures.

The second part of the proposed changes would create a new zoning designation permitting builders to apply for rezoning to allow for two-acre lots in rural areas with no requirement of a 10-acre average. A 100-acre lot could have 50 homes on it.

Structuring the process this way would give the county a chance to collect proffers -- the amount of money developers are asked to give for each new home they construct after rezoning -- for new developments in exchange for allowing builders to put up more homes. Stafford's proffer guidelines call for developers to pay $20,400 to the county for each new single-family home built after rezoning -- money that would go toward schools and other services.

"Allowing one home per three acres with no dialogue at all is untenable for the county," Fields said. The new proposal "gives [developers] a bonus density in exchange for going through the rezoning process, but it gives the county an opportunity to address the impacts of development. The combination of the two is what makes this a fair and reasonable proposal."

Not all developers see it that way. Tony Sala, executive vice president of Silver Cos., one of the region's biggest developers, said the measures would make it too costly to build in much of the county. The result of that, he said, would be that affordable housing would disappear and that landowners looking to sell would suffer.

"If the density definitely changes," Sala said, "what happens is you've got far fewer lots and what happens is only the very, very well-to-do could afford to live there."

Similar to much of the world around it, Stafford has grown precipitously over the past decade. As recently as 1990, it was a sleepy, relatively unknown county of 61,000 people spread across its rolling farmland and dense woods.

Then came the boom of the 1990s, and Stafford, situated halfway between Washington and Richmond, found itself in the middle of development pressures from both north and south. The county, which stretches from the Potomac River to Fauquier County, soon became a suburban bedroom community with a population swelling to nearly 100,000. Farms began to disappear, and trees were chopped down to make way for homes and strip malls.

With new people have come all the familiar burdens of growth: crowded schools, overused roads and strained county departments.

The result of those pressures has been hefty tax increases, raising Stafford's real estate rate as high as $1.18 per $100 of assessed value. Skyrocketing real estate values allowed officials to pare that by 4 cents last year, but the tax rate remains one of the highest in the state.

County leaders have struggled to keep pace with the growth. Initially they voted their pro-development philosophies. But in the last two elections, voters have ousted longtime members of the Board of Supervisors and replaced them, creating a majority of slow-growth advocates, in hopes of tempering residential development.

"It's a much more progressive board than we've had for years," said Supervisor Jack Cavalier (I-Griffis-Widewater). "I'm hoping we can effect changes that are right for the 21st century."

The changes would mimic measures taken by officials in Loudoun and Prince William counties in recent years.

In 1998, Prince William officials responded to a decade of rampant growth by turning an 80,000-acre rural swath into a protected area where only one home per 10 acres is allowed. Loudoun officials adopted a controlled-growth plan last year that allows one home per 10, 20 or 50 acres over 300 square miles of the county.

The proposals in Stafford will come before the Planning Commission on Nov. 20 and could be heard by the board as early as Dec. 15. County officials predicted passage, saying they understand that now is the time to protect the future of Stafford.

"If we want to try to have open areas within the county and continue to have a rural character," said Planning Director Jeff Harvey, "we have to take a look at changing densities."