Next to the 500 acres of flower gardens, ball fields, campgrounds and hiking trails of Wheaton Regional Park, 55 horses vie with nature-lovers for some space to stretch their legs.

Riders can rent a horse or board their own at the nearby stable on Glenallen Avenue, operated by David Butts and owned by Montgomery County.

A few miles south in Rock Creek Park, riders can rent one of Mary Taylor's 28 horses or board their horses at Meadowbrook Stables -- another county-owned horse property.

If Montgomery County decides to purchase the 48-acre Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, a decision approved by the County Council in June, it will be the county's third venture into the horse business.

As with Meadowbrook and Wheaton, the county would own the land and buildings at Potomac. It would rent them to Frederick Harting, the current owner, for an annual fee and a percentage of the center's gross profits.

But the Montgomery County Taxpayers' League has filed suit to prevent the county from spending the $1.1 million to purchase the Potomac facility.

The suit, filed July 9, charges that the county failed to follow proper procedures in approving the horse center purchase.

"The horse center was voted on without a public hearing," said Wylie Barrow, league chairman. "The only hearing was after (County Executive Charles Gilchrist) vetoed the purchase, and then it was a hearing just to override the veto.

"We were against the center to begin with," he continued. "It is a substantial public expense and there is no public clamor for riding.

"If the reason (for buying the Potomac center) is that it's a good bargain, I say that government is not in the real estate business to buy something just because it's a good bargain." i

The defendants in the case -- the County Council, county executive and planning board -- have until Tuesday to answer the charges. A hearing probably will be set for September or October.

Until that case is decided, the county planning board cannot buy the land or build the 48 moderate-income housing units which would have to be included on it as part of the council's agreement to spend the money.

While lawyers and politicians debate capital expenditures and housing units, Cheetah, Pebbles, Hercules and other horses graze in the Wheaton paddock and stable operator Butts worries.

"They get tired and temperamental in the summer heat," said Butts, who has operated the stable since it opened in 1962. "They need space and they need time to themselves, which the average person doesn't seem to understand.

"The park is filled with horticulturists and naturalists who keep pressing for more green space and less horse space," he said with a sigh. "I'm getting squeezed in here."

His animals are permitted along fewer trails these days, he says, and the paddock, a bare stretch of earth where Butts says they get "mentally refreshed," has been shrinking as the park has grown.

"The county should be commended for buying the land back in the 1950s when it did. But they keep confining these horses to a smaller and smaller area."

Butts no longer runs horse shows at his stable, as he did in the 1960s. "Too much expense, and we didn't really have the physical plant for it," he said.

"The expenses of running this place are incredible -- and they keep rising."

Horse feed and medicine are constant expenses, and saddles, bridles and harnesses need replacing. Most costly of all, though, is liability insurance, which Butts must carry in case someone gets hurt at the stables.

" i believe riding will get to the point where people won't be able to afford it," Butts observed. "And one of the main reasons my costs go up is the insurance."

Butts thinks the Potomac Horse Center is a good operation, but he wonders whether the county is getting itself involved in something it someday will not be able to handle.

"What happens after Harting (the owner) leaves?" he asked. "The county will have this center on its hands and will want to charge $32,000 a year to rent it out. I sure wouldn't do it -- there'd be no way to make a profit.

"Someone in that housing (the 48 units to be built on the Potomac Horse Center property) is going to complain about the smell and the flies," he continued.

"Neighbors call me up about piles of manure all the time, people that live in houses you can't even see from here. There's going to be somebody (at Potomac) who figures they'd rather have the horses move than move themselves. And that just might be a problem."

While the Wheaton facility has all the business it can handle, Butts wonders about the future for horseback riding.

"Being with any animal is a good idea for people, and a horse adds an extra dimension from a family pet," he said.

"But now we live in a time of soccer clubs, Little League, track meets. Horseback riding is no longer the only sport that parents want their little girls to learn."