It was not a run-of-the-mill zoning board meeting.
There was Dean Harding, the assistant manager of Maryland Surplus and Outdoors Co., standing in a white lab coat near Charles County zoning officials as one of his assistants "shot" him in the back with a gelatin bullet that splattered a harmless, but messy, blob of blue-green paint when it hit him.
Harding was trying to convince the skeptical officials that he should be allowed to turn 108 acres of agricultural land near the county's western edge into playing fields where adults can pay money to fire the paint bullets at each other.
The four members of the county zoning appeals board who attended the meeting this week, and some of the 80 residents who packed the meeting hall, voiced concern about the safety of the survival games and said they wanted to make sure approval of the special-exception request would not pave the way for aggressive, paramilitary groups to hold contests in the county's backwoods.
After getting "shot" himself, Harding then passed the spotting pistol and the water-soluble gelatin capsules around the table, where one accidentally exploded on Zoning Commissioner Sandra Mitchell, staining her blue blouse.
The tract, which is off Maryland Rte. 6 and Maryland Point Road, is zoned for agricultural use, a category that permits one house for every three acres. Maryland Surplus has leased the property with an option to buy and hopes to divide the area into three 25- to 30-acre playing fields. Portable toilets and trash cans would be brought in, but no permanent signs would be erected, Harding said.
Before playing the four-hour survival game, participants would be required to sign waivers absolving the company of all liability in the case of an accident and to pay a fee of about $25.
"This is a harmless game -- an adult version of Capture the Flag -- played by two opposing teams. It's meant strictly for recreation, fun, a little exercise and, hopefully, a little profit," Harding said.
He said that the games have taken the corporate and educational world by storm, adding that Wang Laboratories Inc., Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Digital Equipment Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsor teams. "Most of the people who play these games are white-collar professionals letting off a little steam. They are not hard-core paramilitary types," he asserted.
Harding said that at, other locations in Richmond and in Calvert and Anne Arundel counties, law enforcement departments play against each other to "bone-up on their skills a little without lethal weapons." In some places, the games have taken the place of the annual corporation picnic, with the shipping department opposing the receiving department, and the secretaries and executives taking opposing sides, he said.
The parent company for the Charles County venture is National Survival Games Co. of New Hampshire, which has 190 dealerships and 2 million players nationwide, Harding said.
Rich Marr has owned six Maryland Survival franchises in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford, Carroll, Prince George's and Howard counties since May 1983. According to Marr, more than 10,000 people have played the games at his Baltimore and Anne Arundel fields during the past two years. Two twisted ankles were the only injuries, he said.
But Salome Howard, president of the Charles County chapter of the NAACP, said she felt the group "could be a front for another national group with an anti-black or anti-Jewish agenda," and she wanted to be reassured that there was no such affiliation.
Harding said he knew of no political affiliation, but said he would report back to the zoning board before it makes a decision next month.
W. Cecil Short, principal of La Plata High School, told the board, "We don't need fantasy hostility groups in our community," and said the concept of "war games where adults shoot at one another with guns is a negative influence" on children.
At one point, about 10 people who had played the game at other Maryland locations introduced themselves to the board, saying things like, "It's a lot cleaner fun than hanging out at the malls," and, "We're not a bunch of crazies."
Jefferson Posey, a long-time Charles resident, said, "We're not out to destroy each other. We're not going up there for hand-to-hand combat, but a kind of cat-and-mouse game that gives you some exercise."
Posey advised the board to approve the application, saying, "We'd like to have a place in Charles. You're just going to keep getting these applications until you approve it."
Earlier this year, the zoning board turned down another application for the same type of combat game operation, saying parking and toilet facilities were inadequate.
Some members of the larely black community of Nanjemoy, which is near the proposed game site, objected to statements by local real estate broker Fred Zihlman that the games "were a blessing in disguise" for the county.
Zihlman said it was better to have "this kind of thing going on than getting more low-income housing and more failing septic systems in there." He was testifying for Harding as a witness to assess the games' potential impact on adjacent property values.
But some residents complained that Zihlman was unfamiliar with the land and did not know it was home to a heron rookery and other native wildlife.
Harding said he was willing to bus participants from a nearby school rather than overburden Smith Point Road -- a winding country road -- with traffic. He also said the boundaries of the property will be marked by three-inch flourescent yellow engineer's tape to warn away hunters and other non-participants. He estimated that as many as 400 particpants could play the game each weekend.
Zoning Commissioner Ballenger Goldsmith asked Harding, "What happens if they want to play 'Rambo' out there?" Harding said he will employ trained referees, and explained that anyone exhibiting aggressive behavior would be disqualified from playing.
Several women players also voiced support for the game. Jill McDonagh, a repair woman for Potomac Electric Power Co., said, "I don't consider myself a rowdy." McDonagh said she and her friends dress up in camouflage when they play, "but so do hunters, and that's not considered military."
Milton Canter, who owns adjacent property, said he is worried about litter and noise and the possibility that someone would accidentally set his timber forest on fire. "I'm concerned about hunters -- who are out there already illegally -- killing one of your people," he said. "It's a dangerous place, and we don't need what you're putting there."
Jim Burke, speaking for an elderly owner of some other adjacent property, said, "The people who live down there are land-poor. That's all they have, and they don't want it destroyed."
The zoning appeals board said it would hold the record open for 30 days before making a final decision.