For the last several years, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has split on the one issue that colors virtually every discussion: growth. Every time a developer proposes an expansive new subdivision or a supervisor wants to put a golf course community in the county's rural preserve, board debates devolve from philosophical differences to petty quarrels and personality-driven battles. The same is often true when it comes to ways to address education, transportation and public safety needs.

That dynamic could change after November, when all eight members of the board face reelection. Voters likely will decide what direction they want the county to take and which half of the board they support, the tempered-growth faction of three or the pro-development majority of five.

"I think this is the most important election this county has faced in its history," said Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large), who has pushed growth controls for the county. "I do honestly believe that this election will determine the future course that the county will follow."

Connaughton said the election will turn on "how one views the county, its future, where we fit in the region and the state, and how we will approach growth."

A sign of how strong the feelings are is how many people are running. As of this weekend, when many of the candidates planned to officially kick off their campaigns, more than 20 people had announced plans to run for a board seat.

Only Supervisors Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) and Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) did not have opponents, though county insiders said Caddigan almost certainly will have one by the April 11 filing deadline for party candidates. Independents have until June 10, the day of party primaries, to file.

The most hotly contested race is in the Occoquan district, where six candidates are vying to fill the seat to be vacated by Ruth T. Griggs (R). Supervisor Loring B. "Ben" Thompson (R-Brentsville) also has announced that he will not seek another term, and two newcomers will fight to represent the district.

Candidates agree that the primary issue for voters will be the relationship among growth, taxes and the ongoing need to build roads, schools and other infrastructure for the county's burgeoning population.

The trend in Prince William and other parts of Northern Virginia has been toward slowing growth. County residents overwhelmingly defeated a ballot proposal last fall that would have raised the sales tax to pay for new roads and public transit. That vote was viewed, in part, as a vote against new development.

The county board backed the proposal, as did several of the candidates looking to unseat board members. How much of a political liability that position will be come November is unclear. Some anti-tax Republicans have threatened to challenge fellow party members who supported the measure, but so far those challenges have not materialized.

Pro-development members of the board say they do not agree that the defeat of the transportation proposal was a vote against development. They defend the board's recent approval of thousands of new homes on the Cherry Hill peninsula and a plan for the small community of Gainesville that would turn it into a Reston-style town center, among others.

They predicted that voters would side with their vision for the county.

"We've been a wise and prudent board on land use decisions," said Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco). "I think two or three members of the board have not always agreed with the majority of the board."

Connaughton, who often has been one of those two or three, said he believes voters "want a board that reflects their own views and their concerns about the county and how it's growing. I hear it enough from people on the street that they want to see us approach the challenges that we're facing in a much more aggressive manner and not simply go on as business as usual."

Richard C. Coplen, a Democrat and political ally of Jenkins who is trying to unseat Connaughton, has criticized the chairman for being a divisive force on the board and said he has not done enough to attract new business that would alleviate rising real estate tax bills.

"Lots of people are suffering the extreme pain of having real estate assessments skyrocket," Coplen said. "I think we can do better."

The Democratic establishment has rallied behind Coplen's campaign. Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine planned to be at his kickoff rally last night, and Coplen said he expects to receive financial support from Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen III, a powerful and well-financed local party force. Coplen also said he has received letters of endorsement from Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert and state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William).

Many county eyes also will be on the election in Gainesville, where Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R) faces a formidable challenge in the Republican primary from John T. Stirrup, Connaughton's appointment to the county's Park Authority.

Wilbourn has been targeted by slow-growth advocates and environmentalists, including Stirrup, for years because of his consistent support for development. In the past two years, Wilbourn was unsuccessful in an effort to allow large-scale golf course communities to be built on land designated for low-density development, but succeeded in passing the plan that would transform Gainesville.

Whoever emerges from the Republican primary will face Gary C. Friedman (D) in the general election. Friedman narrowly lost to Wilbourn in 1999.