The tiny town of Washington Grove, which has 500 residents and describes itself as a "town within a forest," is worrying about its survival.

During its annual New England-style town meeting last Saturday night, citizens embarked upon a strategy to help protect the town from future encroachment by the county, state and federal governments.

It is a simple strategy, according to John Pentacost, chairman of the town's planning commission. He told the audience of about 100 citizens that the town, near Gaithersburg, should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places so the townspeople will have additional leverage against proposals that will directly affect "the Grove."

Pentacost said the town's application to the National Register would "hopefully" mean that any time a county, state or federal project was planned for the area near Washington Grove, the planners would have to first consult the people of the Grove.

The audience fired a number of questions at the planning chairman to make sure the town's application to the National Register of Historic Places would not mean "hundreds of tourists swarming into the Grove."

He responded by telling them that the application would not force them to open their homes or community to the public any more than they do now.

The meeting began shortly after 8 p.m. and ended at 11:15. All of the incumbent town officials - who, incidentally, ran unopposed - were reelected, the $79,000 budget was passed, committee reports were accepted and the citizens went home.

For decades, Washington Grove's town meetings, have been quiet affairs. They are carried out in McCathran Hall. It is a picturesque, cotagonal meeting room, which was named for the town's first mayor.

The town's current mayor, his son, is Donald L. McCathran.He was reelected Saturday.

According to McCathran, the main issue in town is "preservation." He said the town "fosters a way of life," and the townspeople want to maintain it.

The recent growth of government, industry and homes along I-270 have worried many of the residents.

The community, which features Victorian Cottages - built toward the turn of the century - and gravel pedestrian paths that wander through groves of trees, is close-knit.

Citizen participation in community activities is so high, town officials say they were able to reduce their budget by $17,000 this year because of the volunteer efforts of the community.

Suzanne Edwards, a resident whose husband was a former mayor, said she attends the town meetings every year because, "this is our government, and it is very important . . . We love it."

Another resident, Ellsworth Briggs, a music teacher, said he "wouldn't miss a town meeting if he could possibly avoid it."

Most of the town's residents are the "IBM, Bureau of Standards type of people," said the planning chairman. But he said many teachers, doctors and others who originally came to the community still reside there.

The town's history dates to 1852 when Methodists held a large picnic in the middle of the forested site. The grove became the location of regular summer revivals by a Methodist group called the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association of the District of Columbia and Maryland.

Visitors in those days erected tents which were later replaced by summer cottages. These cottages, with their ornate gables, were constructed throughout the 200-acre tract of land owned by the Methodists.

Clay tennis courts were built on the property during the late 1800s when the game was invented. It was remained a popular sport ever since in Washington Grove.

Toward the turn of the century, the camp meeting association became the Washington Grove Association, which was a stockholders company. This company permitted the stockholders to vote on policies of the organization. The voting by stockholders continued after the town was incorporated in 1937.

Now under the current rules, 25 registered voters can petition the Town Council to enact a measure or call a special town meeting, the mayor said.