It was a classic battle of preservationists against developers, but this time it was not over a handsome new high rise or a sprawling parking lot. It was a neighborhood divided over a children's soccer field.

The "preservationists" were residents of the Arlington neighborhood of Cherrydale who wanted to see a small parcel of undeveloped land near Washington-Lee High School maintained by the county in its natural condition. The "developers" also were residents, as well as many other interested Arlingtonians, who argued that the land is desperately needed to upgrade the public school soccer program. Both groups took their cases to the county board last week.

Although the board sidestepped an official vote on how the 2.88 acres should be used, the board rezoned the county-owned land for special park use, and the majority of the board expressed strong intent to follow its staff recommendation that a soccer field be built on the land. The area, which sparked more than three hours of debate at the board meeting is known as Cherrydale West and is in the 1600 block of N. Quincy Street, adjacent to right-of-way for I-66.

Most persons who urged the board to keep Cherrydale West as it is acknowledged that more multi-purpose sports fields are needed; many even said they had children who played soccer and would benefit if a sports fields were built. However, many said they finally decided that these last vestiges of open space in the county, such as Cherrydale, are unique and must be preserved.

Tom Simkin, an area resident, said he had grown up playing soccer and members of his family still enjoyed participating in the game, but Cherrydale West is a "pocket of wilderness" the community needs.

The rate at which these areas are falling to bulldozers is alarming," he said. "It's an important resource to Arlington. . . . Kids like trees, too."

Alia Aukland, a science teacher at Washington-Lee High School, told the board her classes used the area to study nature and the environment and that Cherrydale West was "an irreplaceable piece of land to us. We are at a critical point as far as environmental education. I would implore you to leave the property for us."

But board member Dorothy Grotos challenged that assessment and told Aukland the area "tends to be a fulltime dumping ground" instead of nature heaven.

The "developers" insisted that a soccer field would be an asset to the community. George Towner, who board chairman John W. Purdy called "Mr. Soccer" because of his long association with the sport, pointed out that a soccer field is just a "grassy field" with little real development on it. He urged the board to remember that "soccer is for people." Several young soccer players even came to tell the board how important the field would be for their developing soccer skills.

The board had to decide if the area's zoning should be changed from single-family dwelling to a special parks designation. Both sides favored the special parks designation, but differed on how the land should be used after the rezoning.

After hearing more than 30 witnesses, the board voted 4 to 1 to approve the special parks designation.

Before the vote, board member Joseph S. Wholey said he could not make a decision on the rezoning unless he knew how the board intended the land to be used. The other board members agreed. Although the motion for the special parks designation did not list a specific use for the land, the four board members voting for the motion - Wholey, Purdy, Grotos and Ellen Bozman - expressed their strong intent that Cherrydale West Be converted to a soccer field. Since the funds for the soccer field were included in this year's budget, final approval of the project could come March 4 when the board is expected to approve the environmental assessment of the project.

The only board member to vote against rezoning the area was Walter L. Frankland Jr., who said he favored selling the property.

In the discussion before the vote, Wholey said he also had considered putting the property "back on the tax rolls" by selling it, but believed it was needed for the sports program. He pointed out that the board had fulfilled its obligation to the neighborhood for open space by creating Cherrydale East, a four-acre park several blocks north of Cherrydale West on N. Quincy Street.

The issue of the rezoning was complicated during the discussion when Purdy announced that if the property were not used for a soccer field he also would consider selling it.

"I will not support this land for open space," he said at one point, before it was apparent a majority of the board favored construction of a soccer field.

Bozman disagreed with the arguments to sell the property.She said she doubted that the area could be "preserved as a unique spot" after I-66 construction is completed and that a soccer field would be a better use of the land. She strongly opposed selling the land for private development.

"I'm not in favor of selling any open space in Arlington," she said. "There is no reason for Arlington to be retreating from the open space we have."