The rolling land in western Howard County offers some of the county's best soil for farming. It's also prized by builders because it drains well and accommodates septic systems. So large homes on three-acre lots -- "executive housing" often with million-dollar-plus price tags -- have increasingly cropped up amid the cornfields and horse pastures of the west.

Now, county planning officials want to change zoning regulations to reduce building there and claim more land for farming. Their efforts are sparking opposition from developers and come at a time when County Council members are sending confusing signals about their position on land use.

"Predictability is a big, big thing in running a business, and we don't have it," said Harry L. "Chip" Lundy Jr., president and chief executive of Williamsburg Group homebuilders in Columbia.

Last week during a rancorous meeting, the County Council failed to adopt a new chart that would have shifted 100 housing units out of the western part of the county into the east to build more moderately priced housing. In a peculiar alignment, council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), hoping to make a political point, joined with the council's two Republicans, Christopher Merdon (Northeast County) and Charles C. Feaga (West County), to scuttle the chart.

Ulman said he wanted to show how the Republicans, especially Merdon, "vote against every significant piece of legislation, do not put forward an alternative, then just blame the Democrats." The measure is expected to come up for another vote in September, giving Ulman the opportunity to officially vote with the Democrats.

Merdon, who's an unannounced candidate for county executive in next year's general election, said he didn't like the chart's piecemeal planning. "We need to take a more comprehensive look at how we're doing zoning policy," he said.

That's what officials with the Department of Planning and Zoning say they're proposing to do in the western region.

Now, developers may build one residence per 4.25 acres on land zoned as rural conservation. However, land owners are allowed to accept transfers of development rights from other land owners, and that practice often has resulted in increasing the density on rural conservation land to one home per three acres.

Planners want to eliminate that practice and set a new limit of one home per 10 acres on rural conservation land.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county's ability to purchase development rights on rural conservation land has stalled as developers offer almost double the $20,000 an acre the county can pay.

"We don't like the trend," she said. Her department estimates its proposal would preserve about 2,000 acres of rural land and decrease by about 1,500 the number of residences built in the western region over the next 20 years. McLaughlin would like the County Council to take up the measure in the fall.

Merdon said he hasn't studied the proposal, and he sidestepped taking a position, speaking of the need to preserve open space "and at the same time balancing that with property rights and respecting people's investments in their property."

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County), sounded more supportive of the measure.

"We need to do something," said Guzzone, who may challenge Merdon in the county executive race. He said the county's 2000 General Plan called for 5,000 additional acres of preserved farmland, and in the last five years the county has acquired 400. "Clearly, we're off pace," he said. "If we're serious about preservation, it's going to require taking aggressive steps such as this."

The planning department's proposal, however, is getting a sharp critique from businessmen such as Jim Greenfield, owner of Columbia Builders. "Do it fairly. Do it in a way that passes the smell test," he said.

Greenfield was skeptical about the planning department's promises to "grandfather in" zoning applications that pass an initial review by the fall. Even projects that already have been submitted face a time-consuming review process that can take more than a year and can't be completed by the fall, he said.

"I have no problem with the general concept" of zoning changes, Greenfield said. "I have a problem with the implementation of it."

Councilman Christopher Merdon said preservation must be balanced with "property rights and respecting people's investments in their property."