Columbia often billed as the "next America," is a community where every lifestyle is tolerated - so long as the hedges on your property are not more than two feet high.

No one asks if the men next door are gay or if the couple down the street is married. But install a birdbath on your front lawn and you're in for a nasty fight with your local village board.

Or try painting your door bright blue in a neighborhood where every house is more subdued, and the resident architectural committee will send a registered letter of protest.

In Columbia, no one moves out when a interracial family moves in or flees when the subsidized housing crops up across the street. But when a suburban gardener fertilized his backyard vegetable plot with garbage, he nearly lost his right to vote in the next community election.

The paradox is easily explained, say members of Columbia's six architectural reviews boards. Social acceptance is one cornerstone of Columbia living, but property covenants are another.

"Covenants come with the land," explained Tom Hare, a resident active in the covenant review process for the past five years. "When you settle your house . . . you agree that the public sector will be involved in your property."

Covenants are supposed to prevent suburban eyesores by banning outdoor antennas, chain link fences, permanent clotheslines and trailers or campers from residential streets.

Therefore, each time a homeowner decides to extend the driveway, put up a backyard swing or even sow a sizeable garden, he must submit an applicant endorsed by four neighbors.

It is not unusual for the architectural committees - composed of volunteers - to devote an entire evening to the contours and colors of woodpiles, storm doors, gable vents and flag poles.

"It's a damn nuisance," complained homeowner Van Thompson of Oakland Mills. "Sometimes the covenants are an impediment because you have certain time constraints. You have to take the time to appear before the committee. I don't like feeling on the defensive when all I am doing is extending the garage. What are we trying to preserve?"

The answer, according to Hare, is that good covenants make good neighbors.

"Covenants guarantee that a guy will go next door and talk to his neighbor before he sets his porch in concrete or gets locked into a plan," he said.

Christine Stillman, who lost a battle to keep her garage door bright blue, would counter that covenants drain the community of neighborly feeling.

Stillman's controversy started a year ago when she removed peeling green paint from the outside trim of her house and repainted it blue. Because she found this accent color attractive, she coordinated it with her drapes and then painted both the front door and the double garage doors bright blue.

The next thing she knew she was receiving breach-of-covenant notices because the master plan for her neighborhood dictates that houses be painted in "earth tones."

"What's an earth tone?" she asked. "That's a debatable question . . . The sky is blue. They say brown is an earth tone. I happen to think brown is ugly. It the color of feces.

"If I am going to live in a neighborhood where the homes are valued at over $100,000, I feel my tastes should be accepted."

Hare, however, disputes her reasoning saying that "each block was created with a scheme. And they should be changed with a scheme."

Yet Hare, a former architectural committee chairman, insisted that "we do allow contrasts. We've approved some very radical landscaping ideas."

One idea that has proven too radical even for Columbia, however, is Bill and Gretchen Craig's greenhouse.

Ironically, the Craigs moved to Columbia from Hawaii because the concept of a planned community with property covenants appealed to them.

Gretchen Craig explained that her hobby is growing tropical plants and creating terrariums, while her husband specializes in bonsai, Japanese dwarf plants.

When Bill Craig's summer vacation began in 1975, he started constructing their $5,000 greenhouse - even though the architectural committee hadn't reviewed his application submitted many weeks earlier.

Neighbors began complaining that the greenhouse - in spite of its clear, glass panes - blocked their view of nearby open space.

After two years of haggling, the Craigs had a choice. A costly legal suit challenging Columbia's covenants (they have never been tested in court) or a less expensive renovation project scaling down the green house by one-third.

They chose the latter.

Despite her confrontation with the architectural committee, Mrs. Craig said she still supports covenants. "But there are too many inconsistencies here."

Hare acknowledged that many convenant breaches go uncontested and that guidelines differ in each of Columbia's six villages.

"Some village committees run Gestapo actions, combing neighborhoods looking for violations. In my village we prefer to wait for complaints, then enforce the covenants. Then we have the actual judgement of the community," he said.

Columbia Lawyer Barry Blyveis sees things differently: "Convenants just make nosy people respectable."

Blyveis spent four years fighting over his fruit and vegetable garden.

Neighbors have complained that his produce plots are unkempt and smell of compost, according to Judy Froman, a paid, part-time covenant adviser.

Recalling his experiences as a government lawyer in Oxford, Miss., Blyveis added, "The people there are interested in your religion, your accent, your skin color. But in Mississippi, they would never complain about what you planted in your yard. That's your property.

"It's a different set of bigotry, that's all."