LOUDOUN COUNTY'S elected politicians make no secret of their intent to accelerate the pace of construction in the nation's fastest-growing county. A majority of the county's supervisors ran on that platform last year and won. But did voters know they planned to act with so little regard for ethical standards or case-by-case public input?

That's the impression left after the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted behind closed doors Tuesday to triple the number of houses that can be built on a pristine wooded parcel of land south of Dulles International Airport. The 225-acre property is owned by Roma Dawson, who was treasurer for Republican Supervisor Stephen J. Snow's campaign for office last year, and by Greenvest L.C., a major landowner in Loudoun that bankrolled the campaigns of GOP candidates for the board. Mr. Snow, rejecting suggestions that he had a conflict of interest and should recuse himself, voted to settle a lawsuit brought by Mrs. Dawson and Greenvest challenging growth restrictions on the property, in effect clearing the way to triple the housing density allowed there. The vote was 5 to 4.

The land in question is one of a half-dozen sizable parcels in an area with few paved roads and little infrastructure for development. Just across the border, Fairfax County decided more than 20 years ago to limit development in that area to one house per five acres to protect the Occoquan watershed, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Northern Virginians. Three years ago, the previous Loudoun board, which was less enthusiastic about unbridled growth, limited development in the area south of Dulles to one house per three acres; several property owners who challenged that decision in court lost, although Mrs. Dawson persisted. The supervisors' vote on Tuesday reverses the previous board's limits and would allow the construction of one house per acre. More significantly, it is likely to trigger a fresh round of lawsuits from landowners in that area and elsewhere in the county seeking to increase the amount of construction allowed on their property.

The Washington area suffers from a severe housing shortage, and we've noted before that efforts to shunt away new home construction will simply deflect it elsewhere -- in Loudoun's case, probably to the west. But that is not a prescription for no-holds-barred development or a callous approach to ethics. Mr. Snow, who once suggested that skeptics of his plan to speed growth were welcome to move to Canada, may not have broken any law by voting to enhance the value of his former campaign treasurer's property. But he surely did nothing to deepen public confidence in the process by which crucial decisions on development are made in Loudoun.