Paul Donovan says it's not that he opposes a new church in his neighborhood. It's the traffic snarls and other changes he expects the church to bring that he's against.

So Donovan, president of the Stratford-on-the-Potomac Citizens Association in Fairfax County's Mount Vernon District, and the members of some 50 other Mount Vernon civic groups have opposed construction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is planned for their suburban community.

It will, they say, change the tempo of their quiet, affluent, upper middle class neighborhood and detract from the natural atmosphere of the area.

But despite their long-running opposition, excavation for the $2.5 million structure on 7.3 acres along the George Washington Parkway near Vernon View Drive got under way Wednesday.

Eugene Gulledge, bishop of the Mount Vernon District of the Mormom church, says Donovan and other citizens associations are "trying to read into something that isn't there." He, like the members of the two congregations to be served by the new church wants a spacious, modern facility for worship on Suncay and other church-related activities through the week.

For more than a year, however, the views of Donovan and Gulledge have caused a battle in Fairfax County, where the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Mormon church have fought outraged citizens attempting to keep the church from going up.

"I'm puzzled by it," Gulledge says about the fuss, which has resulted in a lawsuit by two property owners in the area against the church and the BZA. "It has to be the actions of a few people who are concerned. I don't know who it is that thinks it's all right for the Park Service to have a garage that can be seen from the parkway but not a beautiful church."

But opponents insist it is not the church they are against but the changes to the residential area that they fear it will bring because it is located on the parkway.

"We think that's inappropriate use of the parkway," says Mary Jane Orr of the Mount Vernon Council of Civic Associations, which represents about 12,000 households. "Fairfax guidelines prohibit the issuing of building permits for multiple use."

Orr said the new structure -- which will have a culture hall with an auditorium, a basketball court and a 208-space lighted parking lot -- does not conform to Fairfax's master plan and will create more traffic in the neighborhood and along the parkway.

But Gulledge said the new church will not affect neighborhood traffic because all the entrances will lead to the parkway. The facility may be open long hours every day, but will be heavily used only on Sundays and on holidays when special functions are held.

"There are thousands of cars that go up and down the parkway every day," Gulledge says. "Another 200 won't hurt it."

At least one Mount Vernon civic group has not opposed the construction. Alan Beck, president of the Potomac Valley-Riverbend Civic Association, says his group didn't even take a vote on the issue. "I don't see a reason in fighting a church. I just can't see what's so bad about it."

This week two lawsuits caused by the controversy were continued until Jan. 7, 1982. And construction began -- and led to crews from the Eugene Thomas firm of Alexandria being issued a citation for cutting an access road on the site without proper approval, which, of course, delighted opponents.

The big battle, however, is scheduled for Fairfax Circuit Court next January. That's when the two sides will clash to decide whether or not the Board of Zoning Appeals acted properly in issuing the church a special-use permit in April of last year.

Although the case has been delayed, Gulledge says the church will go up: "We're going ahead. . . . It already started this week."