If the residents of Ravalli want to see what hardball growth debates are really like, they might pay a visit to Loudoun County, Virginia, a once-rural area in the northern part of the state that is now part of the suburban sphere of Washington, D.C. Loudoun has been among the nation's fastest-growing county for years, but a recent decision by the state Supreme Court is about to open the doors to even faster growth.

With houses going up by the tens of thousands, local political power has followed a topsy-turvy course for nearly a decade as developers have battled residents disturbed about quality-of-life issues. In 1999, eight county supervisors elected on a "smart growth" platform passed restrictive zoning rules that discouraged building within a 300-square-mile area that's still largely rural. Four years later, development interests helped reinstall a friendly majority that eased some rules, but the restrictive zoning stood.

Until the Virginia Supreme Court handed down its decision, that is. Pro-development lawyers filed hundreds of legal challenges but ultimately won their victory in March on a technicality. The court ruled that county officials had misled citizens when they issued hearing notices that referred to "the western portion of the county" when the restrictions actually extended into the eastern half. In the view of the court, that mistake voided the entire "smart growth" program.

The decision has led to a lot of local gnashing, but the current pro- growth county board, unsurprisingly, has expressed no interest in going back to re-pass invalidated rules that most current members were elected to oppose. Citizens who would like the growth controls back have pulled some cute stunts--they brought a sheep wearing an anti- traffic sign to one supervisors' meeting--but that kind of attention- seeking merely serves to betray how desperate their cause now appears. The court decision was "the final nail in the coffin," says Barbara Holland, author of a memoir about living in Loudoun's mountainous west.