In Howard County, the future is the west.

It stretches from Columbia to the Montgomery County line -- 97,000 gently rolling acres that for years were the quiet pride of farmers and a few refugees from the suburbs.

Here, in the hinterlands unserved by public water and sewers, is the latest prize in the region's real estate bidding contests, what one local player describes as "a mini-Potomac" in the making.

Washington area developers and homebuilders say the word is out on this small, beyond-the-Beltway county: With highly regarded schools, uncrowded country roads and nothing but low-density zoning, its western frontier seems destined to become the next stop for many of the metropolitan area's wealthiest residents.

"We'd buy 1,000 acres if we could find it tomorrow, or even 2,000 acres, the demographics are that good," said Michael T. Rose, a Prince George's County developer who has been scouring the countryside for land to build houses costing $350,000 to $600,000.

In the past, development in Howard has been restricted mostly to its eastern end, where I-95, U.S. 29 and Rte. 1 provided easy north-south links from Ellicott City through Columbia and on to Laurel and Savage. But an increasing scarcity of land along that corridor -- which stretches almost 35 miles from Baltimore to Washington -- has pushed the wave of growth out to rural communities such as West Friendship and Glenelg, where county zoning laws prohibit more than one house for every three acres.

The builders' bonanza, however, poses troubling questions of identity for a largely middle-class county that so far has been able to avoid the problems of rapid growth intruding on its neighbors. During the last decade, the same questions have posed dilemmas for officials in such fast-developing areas as western Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties and northern Montgomery County.

For Howard officials, there seem to be two choices: use the open expanse of land -- which accounts for two-thirds of the county -- to alleviate a housing crunch for low- and moderate-income families, or sustain zoning laws that will help preserve the county's farmland but also make it accessible only to the very rich.

Local government and business leaders agree that increasing the stock of low-cost housing is essential for attracting secretaries and clerks to work alongside engineers and lawyers as high-tech companies continue to locate in Howard.

Working against that notion is an equally strong concern over preserving the county's dwindling supply of agricultural land. The county already has spent $11 million purchasing the development rights to 7,000 acres largely in the western part of the county through its farmland protection program. To many, the push into the west signifies a threat to a cherished way of life built around self-sufficiency and freedom from noisy neighbors and traffic jams.

Just last week, three of five county council members signaled the direction the county is likely to take when they introduced legislation that would allow even less building in Howard's huge swath of undeveloped terrain. The complex legislation, in effect, would allow for only one house per 20 acres. Such a move could significantly slow the current building frenzy, and is certain to provoke an outcry among developers and those who see growth as a necessary ingredient for Howard's continued economic development.

Howard is already one of the most affluent counties in the region, and according to developers and real estate agents, it can become only more so as the county expands its base of corporate headquarters and high-tech medical and engineering jobs.

Lured by the promise of that upper-income market and land that is cheap and plentiful by Montgomery and Fairfax standards, building companies that once considered western Howard too far from downtown Washington are scrambling to establish a foothold there.

Mark Vogel, one of Prince George's County's most prominent developers and the owner of Rosecroft Raceway, said recently that he has been negotiating "a major deal" to acquire at least 500 acres because "all of the builders are saying to find them a spot in Howard County."

Last year, the McLean-based N.V. Homes made its first foray into Howard's uncharted territory with a small, 15-acre project. The houses the firm built there cost between $260,000 and $307,000, and sold out in a little more than four months. The company was so impressed by the results that it wants to build 30 more.

Real estate agents handling properties in western Howard say their buyers come from inside the county and out and hold a variety of white-collar occupations. Some are longtime Columbia residents who have outgrown their current dwellings, and others are recent transplants from communities across the country where real estate prices are even higher.

What they share is "a desire for a little more privacy and a little more space, without a significantly increased commute time," said Joan Cochran of Urban Properties in Columbia.

The perception of impending scarcity in an area that only recently has been regarded as a new frontier has given real estate transactions in Howard these days all the signs of a market gone wild -- rapidly soaring prices, land speculation and naysayers waiting for the bottom to fall out.

In 1986, Cochran said she sold three 3-acre lots for $60,000 to $70,000 each. Last year, she sold 25 such lots for $95,000 to $125,000; this spring she expects them to be priced from $130,000 to $150,000.

Early last year, one local developer set a county record when he paid a Clarksville family $10,000 an acre for their 212-acre farm. By summer, the developer had again surprised the locals by selling the property to a homebuilder for $13,000 an acre.

The homebuilder, Randall Reiner, said many of his competitiors questioned the wisdom of his purchase. However, he said he has refused offers from Washington builders of $15,000 an acre and up.

Developer Rose and others said they would be willing to pay $20,000 an acre if the right parcel became available.

Although some builders operating in western Howard still offer four- to five-bedroom houses on three-acre lots for less than $400,000, the average price exceeds $500,000 and it is no longer unusual to find custom-built models costing $750,000 and up, Cochran said.

"It's probably getting very elitist. If you want to come to Howard County, you're going have to buy a $200,000-plus home," said Donald Reuwer, a schoolteacher-turned-developer who, with 2,000 units under development from Ellicott City to Mariottsville, is leading the push to the west.

Already, the building spree has left an imprint. According to the county planning department, the population in Howard's rural areas is projected to grow to 31,300 by 1995, a 27.5 increase over what it was in 1985.

Along with residential construction have come services to support the new residents, including three new shopping centers and an equestrian center the county parks director wants to build. And after years of being overlooked by the technological revolution, the western end has not one, but two cable television companies battling for the right to lay their lines there.

Ten years ago, local lawmakers tried to turn back the development tide by transforming about 97,000 acres -- the land now at the center of debate -- into a special agricultural zone. The effect was that anyone who wanted to build a house there had to purchase three acres of land -- enough for a swimming pool, tennis court and greenhouse -- to go with it.

For a while, the strategy seemed to work, especially when interest rates soared during the early 1980s. But that changed when the land for building town houses and apartments became scarce. The only place left to go was to the rural west.

"There is no longer such thing as agricultural land in Howard County. Every piece has a development price on it -- whether or not it's for sale," said Earl Arminger, a past president of the Howard County Homebuilders Association.

Kennard Warfield, a member of one of Howard's oldest families and one of its most successful farmers, began subdividing his property four years ago, after plummeting crop prices left him strapped for cash. But rather than sell his land to a developer, he decided to develop it himself.

Today, he owns more of western Howard than anyone, as other farmers have sold him their land and subdivided it for future development.

"Someday the triangle between Washington, Baltimore and Frederick will be one big city," Warfield said. "We can either accept it and stay or move on."

If there is a silver lining for the preservationists, it is that outside developers may have discovered the area too late. Many of the largest remaining parcels are held by farmers who intend to wait out the frenzy or those who, having been alerted to the value of their property, intend to develop it themselves.

Some local developers have been turned off by the entrance into the market of investors who have purchased farms with the sole intent of selling them for significant profits a short time later.

"The prices are getting too high as far as I'm concerned. We've passed on everything unless it's really unique and really attractive," Arminger said.

"I don't think the market for that many really expensive houses is there," agreed Patrick McCuan, who has been developing land in Howard for 15 years.

But last week's action by the council members, who also serve as the county's zoning board, is likely to have the biggest impact.

Local developers said the legislation, which is likely to be approved, will slow development and also will drive prices even higher. Asked whether the western part of the county would still become a "mini-Potomac," developer Reuwer replied: "No, a maxi-Potomac."