On a cool, misty morning recently, 84-year-old James H. McNeal was fishing peaceably on a lonely patch of beach near his seashore home. He glanced down at his watch. It was 7:30 a.m. and McNeal had two hours left before the town's 9:30 a.m. fishing curfew.

When he looked up again, a Bethany police officer was looking over his shoulder.

"He said I couldn't fish after 7:30. He said it was a new ordinance . . . the idea was that if I didn't observe the ordinance I'd be arrested," explained the softspoken retiree, a former chemistry professor at the University of Delaware. So McNeal packed up his fishing gear and went home.

Though McNeal later got an apoligy from the police officer, that incident on the beach has become a cause celebre in this usually staid. conservative community. Many of the younger, newer residents of this small resort find the town's plethora of beach rules a bit too restrictive, and its seven-member police force a bit overzealous.

For years, residents and summer visitors here lived with a variety of laws designed to preserve the rustic, religious atmosphere of this beach community, which began in the early 1900s as a Christian camping ground.

Town ordinances prohibit the sale of alcohol within town limits, and the use of profanity and "lascivious carriage" on the public beach. Bike riding on the boardwalk as well as ball-playing fishing and kite-flying on the shore are restricted to certain hours Surfing is banned.

In years past, opposition to the regulations amounted to only back yard grumblings among some of the residents. But this summer, a 31-year-old local ice cream parlor owner, who became aroused when police tried to arrest one of his customers for having an unleashed dog, has undertaken a petition drive to get city fathers to relax some of the laws and police enforcement of them.

"The problem with the cops is that they see too many cop movies," said one resident who was threatened with arrest for riding his bicycle on the boardwalk on a cloudy day when the beach, he said, was nearly deserted.

"As soon as he saw us the cop backed the car up, floored the gas and spun up over the gravel. It was like something out of 'Kojak,'" he said.

Herbert Carey, Bethany Beach's chief of police, maintains that his officers enforce the laws strictly because that's what the town commissioners want them to do. The commissioners say the laws reflect what the majority of Bethany Beach's residents want.

"These laws are the things that make Bethany attractive to so many people," said city manager Bayard V. Coulter.

Ross Wagner, the ice cream store owner who got 250 people to sign his petition, says he's had no support so far from the town's elected officials - retired FBI agent, two retired military men, an accountant, a retired physicist and a local restaurant owner.

"Some of these laws make sense at certain times, said Wagner, a former Philadelphia schoolteacher who's operated his ice cream store for the past four years.

But in recent years, he said, "the place has become like a police state and I'm not the only one saying that . . . the police used to be friendly. I don't know what happened."

One recent incident has fueled the petition drive. Several weeks ago, police entered the seaside apartment of a 22-year-old woman with guns drawn and told the woman she would have to come to the police station with them for questioning since they had received a complaint that she was trespassing on the property.

It was later learned that the woman was legally renting the apartment.

Chief Carey, who confirmed that one of his officers approached the young woman with a gun, said police were acting "on a bona fide legal complaint" from a taxpayer. "I can assure you we didn't overract," the chief said.

"All this stuff about overenforcement (of the law) is . . ." he continued, but failing to find the word he wanted, wrinkled his face in anger instead.

"We warn, we talk, we try to get people to do right," he added.

Quoting from the town's court docket. Carey noted that the police, since the beginning of June, have actually issued only one citation against a person who bicycled on the boardwalk, two against people for "creating a nuisance" and two against people whose dogs were unleashed. In each of those cases, according to the docket, the town alderman sentenced the offenders to pay a fine, then suspended the sentences, so no fines were actually paid.

Nonetheless, the warnings and the mere issuance of citations still seem to grate on a number of Bethany Beach residents.

Said one summer resident, Dr. Francis Wood of Montclair, N.J., "We just feel that the law has somehow become much too restrictive. They have lost that element of common sense."