Fifteen years ago developer Robert E. Simon came to Washington with a vision of a suburban Utopia. Reston, he said, would be a self-contained "new town" that would defy all the shibboleths of contemporary American life.

So it was. Reston prospered 25 miles from Washington with a mix of condominiums and apartments, businesses and homes, blacks and whites, rich and poor. Reston, as its original settlers used to brag, had it all.

All, it turned out, but the ability to decide its own destiny.

"It was envisioned as an integrated unit, but there was no internal cohesive force to hold it together," says John T. Morris, an attorney who has lived in unincorporated Reston for eight years. ". . . If we don't do something soon, we'll become just another subdivision of Fairfax County. Reston will tend to lose the identity that it's had."

On Nov. 4, Reston's 35,000 citizens will get a chance to approve what Simon, Morris and many others see as the culmination of the original master plan: the designation of Reston as a town under Virginia law, complete with a mayor and town council.

The dream of participatory democracy in Reston is running up against some tough opposition on several fronts, as at least four community groups organize to speak out on the subject. Some say the proposal would give the community too much government; some say it would not give it enough government; and some say it would cost too much at a time when inflation-weary taxpayers are disinclined to pay. In a straw poll by a local newspaper last week, opponents of "limited town status" outnumbered its backers by a 2-to-1 margin.

"The county already takes more out of Reston than it gives back and this document would milk us even more," says Lu Arbelaez, spokeswoman for Citizens Organized against Limited Town Status (COLTS). Arbelaez's opposition to the proposal, which would set limits on Reston's powers and forbid it ever to seek city status, centers on the argument that the community some day will want to establish a government with the clout of a city.

That idea does not sit well with Fairfax County Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, who represents the area that includes Reston and favors the town status measure. Pennino, who helped win approval from Fairfax supervisors and Virginia legislators for the proposal, says neither group is likely to give Reston voters another chance if they refuse this one.

"It's really now or never," says Pennino, adding that she believes any attempt to gain more power would amount to political suicide. Pennino says limited city status "is the most we can get without going to a countywide referendum," which she believes would be certain to fail.

Under the plan outlined on next week's ballot, Reston would be permitted to elect a mayor and council, tax real estate and personal property and establish a public transportation system within Reston. But it would be unable to shake county control of its schools, water or sewage treatment facilities, and would be forced to ask the permission of county officials if it wanted to borrow money, regulate streets and control land use.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Fairfax still will be required under state law to assure Reston's residents of the same level of service other county residents receive.

Reston currently is served by a confusing jumble of sources, a situation that persists from the days when Reston's developers set up caretaker organizations to aid county, state and federal governments in overseeing the community.

One of those caretakers, the Reston Home Owners' Association, now is saying publicly that it neither favors nor opposes town status, but that it will not surrender to any town government the 660 acres of common land, 12 swimming pools, and other recreational facilities that have been deeded to it by the community's current developer, a subsidiary of the Mobil Oil Co. All Reston homeowners are required to belong to RHOA, and pay an annual fee of $90.

Judi Ushio, RHOA's president, admits the association's position on the matter represents a move to protect the investment of the developer, which still maintains a majority on RHOA's board.

"If a town starts taking over these assets, then the developer has a very serious problem about how they're going to be maintained," she says. "You don't have any control in the way things are taken care of."

Adding to the confusion is the fact that no one is exactly sure what services a town government conceivably could add, or what such services would cost. Proponents of town status say the measure would add only $7 to the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $100,000, but opponents are saying the additional levy would be closer to $300.

For Supervisor Pennino, such considerations are not really the main issue.

"There's something about being a town that gives people a feeling that the town belongs to them," she says. "They're more influential in the decision-making process. If they want to do that, I can't see any reason to stop them. Can you?"