About five years ago, the last rabbit living in Rock Creek Park finally gave up and moved. So did the barn swallows, at least three species of butterflies, and as many kinds of grass and underbrush disappeared.

Alarmed National Park Service officials took a long look and concluded that more of the same was in store. Rock Creek Park, the lush strip that runs through the heart of Washington, was becoming too choked with urban noise, traffic and pollution to support certain kinds of animals and plants.

So in 1977, the Park Service began a program called Rock Creek Meadows.

Sixteen sites in Washington's largest park that had been closely-mown lawns were set aside as "wild zones" -- areas that would be allowed to grow as they pleased.

The idea was to reestablish habitats in the park for animal life that had been scared away over the years. Officials also hoped to bring back delicate species of grass and flowers that had been pushed out by trees.

The 16 meadows, each about an acre in area, duly sprouted. But one of the sites, a three-block-long strip along East Beach Drive in North Portal Estates, has proven to be, in the words of a community leader, "a three-year nightmare."

North Portal Estates, 215 homes that lie just west of 16th Street NW and just south of the D.C.-Maryland border, is one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods. East Beach Drive is one its most exclusive streets.

Until he moved to Chicago to become an anchorman for ABC News, Max Robinson owned a house on East Beach Drive. Three ambassadors, four lawyers and five doctors live there today, as do about 20 other families, almost all of them black, all of them prominent in either government, business or the professions, all of them in houses worth $125,000 and up.

But back to the nightmare. One of the 16 meadows sites in directly across the street from private homes.

National Park Service officials consider that an innocent miscalculation. "We never anticipated any objections because of that," said Bob Ford, resource manager at park headquarters. "We thought it would beautify the neighborhood. To me, an unmowed area looks kind of good. It bespeaks a good animal habitat."

But East Beach Drive residents have been furious about the Meadows from the beginning.

For one thing, residents were never consulted before the site was chosen. "They as much as said, 'Here we are, and if you don't like it, the heck with you,"" said Harry Jones, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for North Portal Estates.

Meanwhile, East Beach Drive residents claim that episodes of hay fever and allergies have greatly increased on their block in the three years the Meadows have been growing.

"I can hardly even work in my garden any more without coughing and sneezing," said Earline Keene, of 8141 East Beach.

In 1978, neighborhood officials complained to the Park Service about pollen from the ragweed and grass growing in the East Beach Drive Meadow. Superintendent James Redmond replied that the pollen could not necessarily be traced to the ragweek growing in the meadow, that under certain weather conditions, it "could be coming from as far away as West Virginia."

"Can you believe that?" asked Harry Jones. "They won't clean up what's right across the street, and they blame it on West Virginia? I was highly incensed. I don't think I needed a botany lesson."

"I didn't spend the money I spent for this house to live in the country," a woman who lives in the 8100 block of East Beach sniffed.

The weeds in the Meadows have made it an inviting target for dumping, and a possible hideout for criminals, according to some residents.

"I don't go out at night as much as I used to," said one retired school teacher who lives in the 8300 block of East Beach. "I don't like getting out of my car and not knowing who might be lurking there."

But the way the Meadows look is far more objectionable to most East Beach Drive homeowners.

From the early 1960s, when the first houses were built along the street, until 1977, the site was a 40-foot-wide ribbon of carefully manicured lawn, sloping from East Beach Drive to Fenwick Branch, a tributary of Rock Creek.

By all accounts, the lawn was a graceful addition to people's views, as well as an ideal spot for dog-walking and football-throwing. "My 20-year-old and my 18-year-old virtually grew up there," one resident of the 8300 block said.

Now, as a result of three years of negotiations between the North Portal Estates Civ ic Association and the Park Service, the 12-foot-wide strip immediately beside the street has been trimmed back to lawn. However, the remaining 28 feet between the edge of the lawn and the creek is a tangle of untrimmed weeds, most of them five feet tall or more.

"My 10-year-old has to go four blocks away now just to find a place to play," complained the same resident of the 8300 block. "I won't let him go in there. He'd just love to see a snake pop out of there, but that's exactly what I'm afraid of."

One resident of the 8300 block said the height of the weeds nearly cost a man his life last spring.

The man lost control of his car and plowed into the Meadows, the woman said. Police were called, but becaue the weeds were so high, they couldn't find the car, and the man inside it lost consciousness.

"They were about to give up and leave," the woman said. "I had to show them where to look. What if I hadn't been here?"

Harry Jones and other North Portal Estates community leaders think the Meadows dispute pinpoints the federal government's arrogance toward their neighborhood and their city.

"They'd never do this in Spring Valley," said his wife Evelyn, first vice-president of the civc association, "and they'd never do this in another city."

Because of the federal payment to the city, "there's always been the perception (on the part of federal agencies like the Park Service) that we give you dummies all that money, so we can do whatever we want to you," said Jones, a retired Army colonel. "You just can't sit by and be abused just because they want to do that to you."

For their part, Park Service officials say they have tried to be a cooperative as possible with the community, short of abandoning the meadows program.

Peggy Fleming, a part-time park service employe who has been chiefly responsible for the meadows program since its inception, has asked to appear several times before the North Portal Estates Civic Association, but officials have refused to invite her.

"Why do we need to be told what the situation is when we know what it is?" Harry Jones asks.

Meanwhile, Ford notes that the Park Service has made compromises whenever North Portal residents have sought them. The strip lawn immediately beside East Beach Drive has been widened on at least two occasions, flowers have been planted and debris has been removed, Ford said.

"But even that hasn't been completely satisfactory, obviously," Ford said. "The neighborhood's been fairly closed-minded. They want the Meadow mowed and nothing else."

The Meadows have been mowed once a year, usually each spring, according to Jim Wilson, a park service cutting foreman. u

However, the weeds grow quickly, often at a rate of two feet a month, according to Ford. In addition, according to Wilson, this spring's scheduled mowing in the East Beach Drive Meadow was delayed until October because of a tractor broke.

Has all the controversy over the East Beach Drive meadows been worth it in terms of returning animals or plants? Ford says no.

"I couldn't point to any of the meadows and say we've had new nesting species yet," he said. "We expected more vegetative diversity than we've gotten, too."

He stressed, however, that three years without a major turnaround is "not shocking. These things take time."

And they will have it. According to a paper given by Peggy Fleming before a scientists' convention last November, the Meadows are "a permanent part of the park." The park service plans to continue surveying bird and plant life in them, "but on a reduced scale for the next few years. Then an intensive survey will be repeated," Fleming's paper said.

"We aren't going to go in and mow just because our research isn't as intense as it has been," said Ford.

Evelyn Jones says North Portal Estates is not the kind of community that takes direct action, "but it should be." She says she wouldn't mind a bit if people kept the Meadows shorn themselves, without permission, by letting their "lawnmowers run a little."

Bob Ford, on the other hand, says he would rather see a rabbit again. And so the controversy continues.