The owners of two islands in the Magothy River, embroiled in years-long zoning battles over their right to build houses there, have won significant victories in recent months. But, with appeals of the decisions pending, neither fight seems anywhere near over.

The Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals ruled that the large house that home builder Daryl Wagner built on Little Island without the proper permits could remain. And a county hearing officer said that a new configuration for a house on Dobbins Island could work for businessman David Clickner, whose previous plans have been rejected.

The spats over two wooded spits of land have exposed a conflict between the Magothy's more relaxed past -- when boaters used island beaches as impromptu gathering spots -- and the present, in which every inch of riverfront is worth building on and fighting over.

Opponents of the houses include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a local group, the Magothy River Association. They say that building on the islands sets a dangerous precedent and that rules against development in "critical areas" near shorelines are toothless.

"If the Wagner house does not go down, you don't have any rules," said Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association. "If the Clickner house gets built up on the island, it's the same thing.

"If we can't apply these critical areas to two small islands, then why even have the law in the first place?" he said.

The first controversy, over Little Island, started three years ago when county officials noticed that a two-story house, complete with faux lighthouse, had been constructed on the two-acre island.

Wagner should have sought permits to build the house so close to a shoreline but did not, officials said.

An investigation and a series of hearings followed, as county officials mulled over whether he should be required to demolish the home. In October 2005, a county hearing officer ruled that the home could stand, but that decision was appealed to the Board of Appeals.

On Jan. 3, the appeals board came to a similar decision, noting that others had built homes on the island. But the board said Wagner should remove a pool, patio, gazebo and other structures. Soon afterwards, appeals were filed by the Magothy River Association and the Maryland Critical Area Commission, an arm of the state government.

Ren Serey, the commission's executive director, said he believed that the board -- reluctant to make Wagner tear down the house in which he now lives -- had reached for a political compromise instead of looking at the letter of the law.

"Whether this is the right house, whether this is the right size of the house, never got a fair hearing," Serey said.

Wagner also has appealed the decision, seeking terms more favorable to him. Robert Fuoco, his attorney, said that move was prompted by appeals from the other side.

"We would have lived with [the board's decision], if the other parties had not filed an appeal," Fuoco said.

That appeal will be heard in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, but it could be several months before the case gets a hearing.

Like Little Island, Dobbins lies on the north bank of the Magothy. Pirates are said to have stashed loot in Dobbins Island's cliffs, and a shipwreck was once visible from its shore. More recently, its beaches served as a spot for boaters to picnic, fish and carouse.

But in 2004, Clickner bought the property and began making plans to build a house. He fenced off part of the sandy spots where boaters gathered. His first application was rejected in July 2005 because officials believed that the development might cause too much damage in ecologically sensitive areas near the shore.

On Dec. 18, county hearing officer Stephen M. LeGendre ruled that Clickner now had an acceptable plan. LeGendre ruled that Clickner's proposed house would have to be modified only slightly -- by about two feet -- so that none of it was within a 100-foot buffer zone reaching back from the shore.

This decision has also been appealed by the Magothy River Association and the bay foundation. A hearing will be conducted before the county Board of Appeals on April 18 and 19. An attorney for Clickner, Harry Blumenthal, did not return a call for comment last week.

In the meantime, the Magothy River Association has filed suit against Clickner and his wife over public access to the island's beaches. The association says that, even if the land is his on paper, the community has some claim to it, after decades of treating the beach as community property.

"If we can't get the whole island" -- as the association wants to do, turning it into a bona fide park -- "we at least want to get for the public what we've been using" for decades, said Ann M. Fligsten, an attorney for the neighborhood group.