The builders arrived with chain saws Sunday morning. They chopped down and cut up the last row of trees from what a few months ago was a patch of woods, a row of trees that separated $80,000 houses along Capella Avenue near Burke in Fairfax County from a field of red dirt where a shopping center will stand come Christmas.

Carol Ryan, who says that she, her husband and her four children along with her neighbors had been led to believe the row of trees would not be destroyed, ran upstairs to get her husband when she heard them coming. "If they touch our trees," she told her husband, "we'll sue them."

Another resident of Capella Avenue was awakened by the saws. Lee Laws called police, his wife called Springfield District Supervisor Marie B. Travesky and he went outside to ask the men with chain saws what they thought they were doing. "I was a little huffy," Laws said.

John Logan, the foreman of the tree cutters and the man responsible for building the shopping center by Christmas, was doing what the Fairfax County arborist - whose job it is to protect trees - says he had a perfect right to do.

Logan's men chopped down trees on property owned by the BTR-Springfield Properties development company of Baltimore. They did not touch the trees on the Ryan's or Laws property.

Travesky and people who live along Capella Avenue said yesterday they think BTR betrayed them. "We got what we considered a firm commitment to save those trees," Travesky said.

According to Travesky the manager of construction for BTR and an arborist the company hired told people who live near the shopping center site that "when we mark trees (with a white band) we will save them." Several of the trees cut down Sunday were marked with white bands.

"I can understand where there is a misunderstanding," said Robert Price, manager of construction for BTR. Price said the orborist "marked trees that he would like to have had us save." The construction manager added that the grading of the fill dirt for the shopping center made it impossible to save those trees. Between the shopping center and the houses a 15-foot grass strip with shrubbery will be installed to provide screening.

"We felled trees that were saved from the bulldozer," Price said. The trees were cut down rather than bulldozed, to avoid disrupting the neighbors trees and property, according to Price.

County arborist Richard L. Hoff said BTR made a good faith effort to save as many trees as possible.

"I cannot accept that," Travesky said yesterday. She has scheduled a meeting with BTR for today and asked the county legal staff to look into any possible action the county can take against the company.

Yesterday afternoon James Featherstone, his wife Betty and their 8-year-old daughter Christian were sitting in their dining room, looking out the window at earth movers with wheels bigger than Volkswagens and trying to talk over a rumble that sounded like war.

"We three years ago," Featherstone said, "to get away from shopping centers, asphalt jungle and what have you." His wife had color pictures of the trees that used to be visible from the dining room. "You want to see what it looked like? It was gorgeous," she said.

James Featherstone said he understands that the builder owned the land and had a right to destroy the trees. "But it was just the idea of the thing. They came and cut it down on a Sunday morning."

The cutting of the trees is the latest misery for the Featherstones, the Laws and the Ryans in what they say have been miserable months since they found out the land behind their houses is zoned for commercial use.

When they bought their houses three and four years ago, paying around $75,000 apiece, they failed to check with the county zoning office, a check that can be made with one phone call. They said the developer who sold them their houses did not tell them that the woods behind their homes had been available since 1969 for commercial development.

"I think we have learned a good lesson," Featherstone said yesterday. But he and his neighbors said they had not expected the lesson to be driven home with chain saws on Sunday morning.