St. Mary's County commissioners, faced with a pressing shortage of affordable housing, have rejected a proposal to build 40 apartment units near Great Mills High School for rental or purchase by low-income families.

At the same time, the commissioners Tuesday approved the renovation of nearby Great Mills Village, currently occupied by some 40 families. The vote on the subsidized housing project, proposed by the nonprofit Tri-County Community Action Committee, was 5 to 0.

On the so-called Gateway Housing project proposed by the county Housing Authority, the commissioners split 2 to 2. Voting for it were Larry Jarboe (R-Mechanicsville) and Kenny Dement (D-Callaway). Opposing it were Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) and Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills). Board President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) abstained, citing his ownership of a nearby supermarket.

"It's always easy to turn down low-income housing, because a majority of our citizens aren't," said Clare Whitbeck, a critic of the commissioners who mounted an unsuccessful campaign last year for a seat on the county's governing board.

Mattingly said the concern was that the two projects would be directly across from each other on Lexwood Drive and would thereby concentrate low-income families in one area. But he said he had "mixed feelings about my vote" and wanted more information on the Gateway project.

Renovation of Great Mills Village would neither expand the county's supply of affordable housing nor displace families. Two or three vacant units would be renovated first, after which current residents would move into them, vacating other apartments. That, in turn, would free the apartments to be upgraded.

Tuesday's votes came just before the commissioners toured Lexington Manor, World War II-era housing originally built in Lexington Park for military families and known as the "flattops" because the flat roofs resemble aircraft carrier decks.

The commissioners met informally at Lexington Manor with more than a dozen tenants who said they were under great stress because of pressure on them to relocate and the lack of other suitable housing in the county for them.

The flattops, across Route 235 from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, currently house 90 low-income families. Various proposals under consideration call for razing the entire complex and replacing it with shops and other commercial uses or allocating a portion of the tract for new, more expensive housing.

The prior commissioners sued the owner, a corporation known as Club Properties Inc., over the firm's plans to build more houses there. Under a settlement agreed to by the new board, the litigation was dropped in return for a "development rights and responsibilities agreement" that encompasses Club's proposals.

The proposed agreement was the subject of a Planning Commission hearing Monday night that about 30 people attended. The commission is to review the document and make a recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners.

The agreement, Jarboe said, "gives us the option of purchasing part of the property, with the other part commercial and about 100 homes kept and upgraded, ideally for affordable housing but not necessarily."

"I hope we can find revenues and purchase part of the property," said Mattingly.

But that would not necessarily result in replacement housing for flattops residents, he said. One idea being considered, he said, is simply to create more open space from the tract, which is subject to loud noise from airplane landings and takeoffs.

But under the proposed rights and responsibilities agreement, the county and developer must relocate the families in a "comparable unit in the neighborhood" before the flattops could be demolished.

The county has 18 months from when the agreement is signed to exercise its option to buy.