Prince George's County Council member Frank Casula's opening words at the debate on Konterra were the most telling.

"I have mixed feelings," Casula said of the proposed 2,000-acre mini-city, largely rejected last week by the County Council.

Casula's ambivalence exemplifies the council's erratic approach to development, not only of Konterra, but throughout the county.

Konterra was to be a 25- to 35-year project, with construction of the office, high-tech manufacturing and residential community stretching into the next century.

Such a planned development, backers hoped, would boost the county's image, cementing a shift from the garden apartments, suburban strips and industrial warehouses of the county's past to a high-tech, glitzy future that would put Prince George's on a par with its neighbors, who have been more adept at attracting up-scale development.

Yet even as it casts an envious eye on ambitious projects going up in surrounding counties, the council is frightened by the idea of approving such far-reaching plans for Prince George's.

Last year, it gave the go-ahead to the luxury Bay of the Americas waterfront complex on Smoot Bay, just south of the Capital Beltway. But in August, the council blocked rezoning for Brookefield, the 2,500-acre "new town" proposed in Brandywine in the county's largely rural southern end.

With Konterra, a mini-city of 20,000 residents and 40,000 employes proposed on a moonscape of sand and gravel pits in the northern end of the county, the council passed only 523 acres of rezoning, saddling most of that property with stringent restrictions that could delay construction until well into the 1990s.

The vote makes clear that the council's approach to development is not a clean split along geographic lines, blocking growth in the county's largely rural southern end while giving the go-ahead to projects in the more developed northern half.

In fact, some observers wonder what approach Prince George's is taking.

"One of the things we need is a consistent policy on development ," said County Executive Parris N. Glendening. "Mixed signals are being given." Glendening, who had lobbied hard for Konterra, spent much of the day after the vote phoning local business executives to assure them that the outcome did not mean abandonment of the county's much-advertised pro-business, pro-development stance.

With its Konterra vote, the council "was trying to make everyone happy and ended up making no one happy," said William J. Ferguson, who spoke out strongly against the project at the public hearing on it last week.

"They as a council understand that we need to have economic development, and that we made some very serious mistakes in the late '50s and the '60s with garden apartments and runaway zoning," said Ferguson, who is zoning chairman of the West Laurel Civic Association. "But I'm not sure that they know how to get a handle on it. . . . The council just doesn't have a countywide vision. They look at each one of the trees without standing back and trying to look at the forest."

"You look at Howard County, you see Columbia," council Chairman Floyd Wilson said after the vote. "You go into Virginia, you see Reston, Tysons Corner, you see Crystal City. You see major developments all around us, and I don't understand why we have to wait 30 years to see whether this is viable in Prince George's County. . . . "

But Casula, who represents the area in which Konterra would be located and who engineered the eventual compromise vote, argued that the problem with the plan was precisely its long-range, large-scale approach. "The developer wanted zoning for everything as of today that he was going to build in 20 or 30 years," Casula said. "I believe in economic development, but I believe that people have a right to live in peace wherever they live."

For the past 10 years, Prince George's has been on a crusade to attract businesses -- office parks, research and development operations, corporate headquarters -- rather than the avalanche of inexpensive garden apartments that sprang up during the 1960s, drawing large numbers of low-income residents from poor sections of the District adjoining the county.

While garden apartments were going up in Prince George's, Montgomery County, bordering the more affluent areas of the District, clamped down on apartment construction and was able to steer growth in the direction of expensive, single-family homes. Later, Montgomery succeeded in attracting high-quality businesses anchored along the Capital Beltway and stretching outward on the I-270 corridor.

Prince George's County has recently started to catch up. Ten office and business parks are open or under construction, and eight more are planned. Since 1979, more than 1 million square feet of office and research-and-development space has been added annually.

Yet the linchpin of such growth was to be long-term projects such as Konterra. "What we've been after for quite some time is large-scale, multiyear development," said Glendening, who sees such growth as "an alternative to the low-density sprawl" that has plagued the county's image.

One reason these projects have encountered difficulty may be the switch in the county's method of selecting council members, implemented at the last election in 1982. Prior to that year, residents voted at-large, as they do in Montgomery. Now, Prince George's residents vote for council members by districts.

With council members now responsible to a particular constituency, observers say, chances are dimmer for the approval of large-scale rezoning requests opposed by those who live near the proposed site.

Fellow council members, aware that they will need political backing when it is their turn to battle proposals for an unpopular development or sludge site, tend to extend councilmanic courtesy in deferring to the member most affected.

"What we had before was a package deal of a slate of candidates that was handpicked by the party hierarchy, and all the development interests financed their campaign, so obviously those council members then owed their souls to the people who put them into office," said Carmen Anderson, an antidevelopment activist.

With the advent of district voting, she said, "The weight is very heavy on the one council member from that area to prevent something from happening, and so he's got to be able to call in his debts."

Nonetheless, the council has not become responsive enough to citizens, Anderson says. But others are worried that the pendulum has swung too far, with council members concerned with their area at the expense of the county as a whole.

"Had we let them run all at-large, there would be more of a countywide perspective as opposed to the little fiefdoms which we have set up," said Ferguson.

"There's no question in my mind" that the Konterra outcome would have been different under the at-large system, chairman Wilson said. "That was very much a parochial vote."

Seconding Casula's motions on Konterra Tuesday was council member William Ammonett, who spearheaded council opposition to Brookefield, located in his district. "Mr. Casula's scratching Mr. Ammonett's back, and Mr. Ammonett comes back and is scratching Mr. Casula's back," Wilson said.

Ammonett said that his Konterra vote was not political, adding, "He Casula lives up in that area there and knows what's going on."

Meanwhile, the battle over Konterra itself is far from over. The council must vote again on a final version of the rezoning plan. Glenn T. Harrell Jr., the lawyer representing developer Kingdon Gould Jr., will try to scale back the construction restriction imposed on 488 acres approved for mixed-use zoning.

Under Tuesday's vote, Gould cannot start building on that land until work starts on a four-lane highway through the property interchanging with I-95 -- a Casula idea. Gould, other council members and other observers believed that Casula was referring to the Inter-County Connector linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which Casula has in the past opposed. But Casula insisted after the vote that Konterra construction need not wait until that entire roadway is built, as long as an interchange with I-95 -- which is envisioned as part of the Inter-County Connector -- is under way.

Harrell, who said he was still optimistic that Konterra would eventually be built, wants to persuade the council to abandon even that requirement. Instead, he said he will try to convince them to let construction proceed when lesser road improvements get under way.

"I believe we are still going to go forward with the Konterra idea," he said.

But other observers were less optimistic about the progress of development in the county in general.

"They call us the ugly sister, and all of these kinds of things that we did [with Konterra] is what perpetuates that attitude," Wilson said. "I think we blew it."