Some Howard religious leaders are challenging a proposal being considered by the County Council to more than quadruple the number of sites where adult entertainment businesses could be located. But county officials say the potential for costly lawsuits leaves them little choice.

The proposed zoning changes, approved by the Planning Board last month, are intended to relax zoning regulations for strip clubs and adult video and bookstores that were overturned last year by the state's highest court.

"We feel we have struck a balance," said Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning. "It is a balance between the rights of free speech that have been safeguarded by the courts and the rights and interest of the communities."

County officials said that, if approved, the number of sites legal for such businesses would increase from about 23 to 101, almost all in the eastern part of the county where there are greater stretches of land not zoned residential.

Two adult entertainment businesses now operate in Howard, one on Route 40 in Ellicott City and another on Route 1 in North Laurel, Lafferty said.

In response to a lawsuit from the Pack Shack adult bookstore in Ellicott City, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in September that the county's zoning requirements violated the constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Those standards, which the county has since abandoned, required that adult entertainment businesses be at least 500 feet from businesses, homes, churches, schools, day-care centers and parks. Another provision, also deemed too restrictive by the court, stated no two adult businesses could be located within 2,500 feet of each other.

The council is now being asked to drop the community buffer to 300 feet and decrease the no-clustering requirement to 1,000 feet. A vote on the matter could come later this month.

The county has spent $200,000 in legal fees on the Pack Shack case, but the amount will climb. In March, a Howard Circuit Court judge ordered the county to pay Pack Shack's legal bills, which are still being negotiated.

Without the new requirements, county leaders say they could face additional lawsuits that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also fear that an adult entertainment business could open anywhere.

"Since there have been no regulations in place since February, people do not have to come to us to get any permission to operate," Lafferty said.

But Allen Harris, pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, is worried the proposed regulations are too lenient and could result in far more adult entertainment businesses in the county.

"We think it is unfortunate that the [county] is being intimidated," Harris said. "They do not realize there really is a great deal of public support for restrictions like this. One thing that makes Howard County desirable is that it is family friendly. It does not have the pornography."

Harris said he is trying to organize his church members to lobby the council to amend the proposal so fewer sites would be eligible as adult venues.

Larry Clairmont, a member of the church who is helping Harris in the effort, said: "We really do not know what the end game is here. I think we recognize that the county has to do this, and what we are asking the county to do is the minimum necessary to meet the criteria."

County officials, however, worry that changes in the plan, which was developed over months by lawyers and zoning officials, would run into trouble with the courts.

Although the council could amend the plan, several members predicted the regulations would be approved as proposed.

"I would be real cautious about going against the [county] Office of Law's recommendation," said council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County). "I would say our hands are tied from a legal perspective."

Merdon said he prefers that the county "be more liberal with our policy and have it upheld in court" than "too conservative and face legal battles."

The county tried to close the Pack Shack in 1997 by approving the regulations that prohibit such establishments within 500 feet of residential zones. At the time, the Pack Shack was one of three adult entertainment businesses in Howard.

Shortly after the regulations took effect in 1999, county officials filed court papers to try to force the Pack Shack to close or move its operation. But the owners fought back, alleging that the county's regulations violated the right to free speech because too few sites existed for such a business. In 2000, a Howard County Circuit Court judge sided with the county and ordered the Pack Shack to close immediately. The store appealed the ruling, which was upheld by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Last year, however, the state's highest court overturned that ruling, saying the county did not provide enough alternative sites.

Council President Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast) said the county is moving swiftly to adopt the new regulations to avoid the cost of being sued again.

"We ended up saddled with a couple hundred thousand in legal bills," Guzzone said. "The key was trying to figure out how to draft something that would provide some limitations but our not end up being sued again."

County officials said that even under the new zoning requirements, the Pack Shack could be required to relocate because it is within 300 feet of a residential development.

Howard J. Schulman, an attorney for the Pack Shack, said this week that he had not seen the proposed regulations but that he expected the store owners to challenge any attempt to make them move. "If someone tried to put you out of business, wouldn't you fight it?" Schulman asked.

He also said he was skeptical of the county's claim that the regulations would provide 101 sites.

Lafferty said that if the proposed regulations are adopted, county residents should not expect an influx of adult entertainment businesses.