A land-use plan proposed for Delaware's southern coast would lower building densities in the rapidly developing region north of Ocean City, Md., but also would increase the amount of land zoned and readied for development -- which is why it is touching off a flurry of protest from developers and environmentalists alike.

"The fact that both the developers and environmentalists are criticizing the plan may be a good sign," said Dean Phillips, town manager for Bethany Beach. "It may mean they have reached a compromise."

The proposal, released this month by the consulting firm that wrote it, is expected to be considered soon by the Sussex County Planning Commission and later by the Sussex County Council, which has final authority.

As resort builders have run out of beachfront land in Ocean City, just a few miles south of the Delaware-Maryland border, they have turned north to the relatively quiet communities of Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach to look for new opportunities. The number of homes in the coastal region of Sussex County has increased by 20 percent in the last five years, which has triggered concern for the region's fragile inland bays and such environmental issues as water quality and shellfish contamination from groundwater pollution.

A study by a state environmental task force two years ago recommended that Sussex County lower densities along the coastline in order to protect the natural areas and slow the intrusion of saltwater into deep freshwater wells. That recommendation started the effort to adopt a new and tougher comprehensive plan for the coastal region of the county.

The draft plan now before the county planning commission, however, may not meet the overall objectives of the state task force, some residents and environmentalists said.

"Superficially, the plan looks good," said Warren T. Zitzmann, a member of the Bethany Beach planning commission and a member of a community group called the Coalition of Coastal Communities. "But when you look closely, a lot of it seems to be lip service.

"The bottom-line decisions in the plan, such as how much to increase building density and where to put it, are awfully fuzzy," Zitzmann said. "It is a complex, confusing plan, and it is difficult to know what they really are recommending."

Nearly 300 persons attended a public hearing on the plan last week, where many raised concerns over both the details and general philosophy of the plan, and the question of whether the county would adopt the plan at all.

"There is also some concern that the county council may not ever adopt it," Phillips said. "They had a plan drawn up 10 years ago and never adopted it, and there's no guarantee they will adopt this one."

Environmentalists applauded a proposal in the plan that would lower overall building densities for the county from a maximum of 18 units per acre to a maximum of 12 units for high-rises, eight units per acre for town houses and five units per acre for manufactured homes. Detached houses would be allowed at a density of two units per acre.

Developers and builders opposing the plan at the hearing focused on the lower densities. They argued that reduced building would hurt tourism and create unemployment in the construction industry.

The plan also proposes setting aside an agricultural preserve to protect the remaining farmland in the eastern sector of the county. The plan does not, however, place any substantial zoning controls on that farmland, but instead would allow development at the rate of one unit per acre. The consulting team that did the report, Whitman, Requardt and Associates of Baltimore, said strict zoning controls could not be justified because there is little development pressure in the agricultural area.

The plan also anticipated a 2.5-to-3-percent-a-year population increase for the coastal area during the next 20 years, and recommends sewer and water services be extended to an additional 10,000 acres of the county, in the areas to the north of Bethany Beach and around the southern part of the Indian River Bay.

Critics of the plan, however, said that much of the land the plan defined as already developed is developed at relatively low density and that it is not necessary to open up 10,000 additional acres to accommodate that growth.

The plan also proposed establishing a 1,000-foot buffer zone along the coast and the shore of the inland bays, but said that development could begin in those zones as soon as sewer services are provided.

"The concept for a conservation zone is fine, but the minute they put in the sewer lines, there will be no stopping the development," said William S. Green, a Washington lawyer who spends summers on the Delaware coast. "This plan contains the seeds of its own destruction."

Despite the concerns, however, there appears to be widespread support for adoption of a plan that addresses the problems raised by the state task force.