James Rouse built Columbia in the late 1960s with the idea that he could create a multicultural, modern-day Utopia between Washington and Baltimore. He left his company in 1979 but lived in Columbia until his death in 1996, watching over the planned community like a doting parent.

Even now, Rouse continues to cast a long shadow.

With the impending sale of the Rouse Co. to shopping mall specialists General Growth Properties, Columbians are nervous. But these residents of one of the nation's most affluent and well-educated counties know politics, and they know how to make themselves heard.

Many already are enmeshed in what looks to be a long fight over how to develop 63 acres in the heart of downtown Columbia. Some of the same people are fighting a Rouse Co. plan to downsize and sell Merriweather Post Pavilion, the outdoor concert hall next to the proposed development. Like the best Capitol Hill lobbyists, they have been using every method at their disposal: meetings, mass mailings, leafleting, phone trees, Web sites and public testimony.

Inevitably, James Rouse comes up. What would Jim do? Many believe they know.

"Jim Rouse was my hero," said Toby Orenstein, a longtime member of the Howard County arts community who operates a theater across the street from the Mall of Columbia, just steps away from Merriweather Post.

"Rouse's vision has been destroyed already," Orenstein said to a community panel assessing whether Howard County should buy Merriweather Post from Rouse. "We all know what Jim Rouse would have wanted this area to be: beautiful. That's what Jim Rouse wanted."

Longtime Columbia resident Werner Gruhl, upon hearing his neighbors' ideas for making downtown Columbia more than just another suburb, offered this at a County Council session: "I believe Jim Rouse is sitting among you, applauding your concern and foresight."

Peter Fedynsky, a relative newcomer (he moved to Columbia six years ago), put it this way: "I urge the council to do as Mr. Rouse did -- leave well enough alone. . . . I dare say that Jim Rouse, model citizen, knew that wealth in Howard County is not just the quantities we can count around us but the qualities that our surroundings nurture in us."

Indeed, many Columbia residents recently suggested that the County Council should simply call a halt to all development downtown, take a breather and then devise a plan to control growth. They point to Rouse's original vision, which they say included a pedestrian-friendly commercial and retail district, with the performing arts close by.

"The spirit of Jim Rouse's vision should guide the development of Town Center," said Robert Tennenbaum, who worked with the developer in the 1960s as Rouse pieced together the 14,000 acres that became Columbia.

Ian Kennedy, a second-generation Columbian who has led the effort to retain Merriweather Post, drew heavily on Rouse's legacy when he addressed the council last week.

"Columbia's greatest asset is its residents. To be sure, Columbians are diverse in many respects, but the one thing we all share is a bond to our community and the ideas and principles upon which it was founded," he said.

And then he quoted -- who else? -- James Rouse: "An inspired and concerned society," he quoted, " . . . will put the fruits of their labor and intellect to effective use."

Kennedy received sustained applause.