When St. Mary's County government staff members sat down in front of the commissioners to present the offer to buy Lexington Manor, the run-down housing across from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, county attorney John Norris started by telling them it had been a pleasure to work on this project with them.

The commissioners all laughed.

"I want to start off by saying you're not half done yet," said Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), the board president.

"That's just today's paperwork," said Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) of the huge files they had on the table.

And Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) said moments later that this was a moment he thought they might never see:

* finding a way to buy 84 acres in Lexington Park so they can demolish the dilapidated cinder block houses best known as the "Flattops";

* finding new homes for the remaining tenants, who pay about a half or a third of the market rate in rent now, and covering the difference;

* and coordinating state and federal money, rules and paperwork to pull it all off.

The commissioners unanimously approved the staff's recommendation: The county will offer $5.3 million to buy the property from Essex South Management LLC.

By the terms of a deal reached last year, they had to make an offer by Aug. 16. "Nothing like waiting till the last meeting," McKay said Tuesday.

"It is a great day," he said. "A wonderful day."

Essex South -- which paid more for the property -- can opt for another appraisal. Still, Raley said, "we're going to get it; it's no longer in doubt."

John Savich, county director of economic and community development, said the project would get residents into better housing, remove slum and blight, remove the encroachment problem with the naval air station -- the Flattops lie in the flight path of Navy jets -- and stimulate development in Lexington Park.

Not everyone shares the commissioners' delight over the project. People who live in the Flattops have been worrying for years about where they will go when they have to leave one of the few places they can afford. By law, they are entitled to assistance with rent or mortgage payments for several years -- but affordable housing is scarce in the area.

The commissioners agreed to give the same help to tenants regardless of which part of the property they live on. For purposes of the purchase, the Lexington Manor tract was divided into north and south parcels so that the county could take advantage of a patchwork of local, state and federal funding sources.

Some nearby businesses are worried, too.

Linda Palchinsky, who has run Linda's Cafe in Lexington Park for 18 years, said she has been hearing rumors that the county also will buy the property just outside the Flattops neighborhood as part of a redevelopment project. She has plenty of regular customers to keep her busy and isn't interested in moving her restaurant.

The $5.3 million offer is only for the north and south parcels of the Lexington Manor property. But the commissioners have looked at the surrounding area and asked questions, Jarboe said. A Lexington Park revitalization project has brought a new post office, library and other conveniences to the area. But the stretch of businesses nearby hasn't followed suit, Jarboe said.

Now there are weeds growing up along the brick storefronts, and a red Woolworth's shopping cart stands abandoned. A sign in the corner of Mickey's Pawn Shop warns: "You are being videoed!!"

But the stores aren't all old. A "Grand Opening" sign hangs over the door of Royal Cleaners, a few doors down from Linda's. Hong Kim said he and his wife, Kae, have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into starting the business; huge metal cleaners stick out of one wall of the big room, and long racks full of clothes stretch to the back. Their 8-year-old son, Eric, stood in front of a fan, enjoying the breeze as they talked about how expensive it would be to move.

"I'd like to keep the place here," Kae Kim said, looking worried.

It's possible the commissioners might tie something in with redevelopment of the northern parcel sometime down the road, Raley said. But not anytime soon: "Those people have a lease with the owner."

Jarboe said discussions about nearby property are very preliminary, and the commissioners are just trying to think about all the possible options for renewal. A few years ago the county bought a run-down old theater, a space where drug dealers used to hang out, and now the post office is there, he said.

"I'm just trying to look at what's the best deal for the taxpayers," Jarboe said.