Like most young men of his generation, Jim Green had no intention of returning to his home town that sunny day in June when he received his college degree.

The year was 1965, and there was too much going on in the world to make even a 23-year-old heir to a cattle and corn fortune want to head home.

Home was Marshall, a farming community nestled against the Blue Ridge mountains in northwestern Fauquier County, and it wasn't such a bad place for a boy to become a man. But after four years of college, and with all his friends packing their bags, Green was ready to break away.

His ticket out of Marshall was the Army, with its promise of adventure and travel.

Six months later, Green received a call that his father was dying. Begrudgingly, Green headed home, his brief independence cut short.

But soon after Green returned to Marshall, he began to notice subtle changes. "Drifters," as Marshall residents called them, were arriving from the urban centers he once had sought as refuge. And although Marshall and the surrounding farm community held on to its rural ambience, the newcomers brought a cosmopolitan flair and diversity that Green found increasingly attractive.

"When I first came home," Green says now, "if I wanted to have five people to dinner I couldn't find them. Everyone wanted to get the hell out of here. Now, if I felt like it, I could invite 500 and still not ask everyone I would like to."

Green's claims of growth are far from exaggerated. In the past decade, the population of the Marshall District, which includes the town of Marshall and nearly 230 square miles of surrounding farmland, has increased an astounding 30 percent -- from 4,691 to 6,114--in contrast to the previous decade, in which the entire county grew by only about 2,000 people.

And there are no signs of a slowdown. Housing construction is up 40 percent, there's a trendy new restaurant in town, and Interstate 66, the long-awaited four-lane highway to Washington, has been completed.

Green likes what's happening to Marshall so much that two years ago he campaigned for -- and won -- a seat on the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors. Now, the 38-year-old says he wouldn't leave Marshall.

"Variety," he says, "makes all the difference."

The striking population increases in Marshall reflect a national trend reversing a century-and-a-half of migration from rural areas to the nation's big cities. For the first time since 1820, according to the latest census figures, nonmetropolitan areas are gaining population more quickly than metropolitan areas.

That trend is no more evident than in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. While close-in areas, such as Arlington County and Alexandria, lost population in the past decade, counties and towns further along the Washington metropolitan fringe area expanded at an unprecedented rate. Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties grew by more than 50 percent. And Frederick, Warren and Fauquier counties shot up by more than a third. The state grew by 14.9 percent.

Says George Mason University geographer James Fonseca, "Every year we're seeing waves and waves of people moving further out in Virginia. . . . Just look at the real estate magazines if you want a simple view of what's going on. A few years ago, if you picked up one in a local drugstore there would be no mention of those (fringe counties). Now, they all mention at least Fauquier County and Culpeper."

Some growth can be linked to economic reasons: less expensive housing, quicker commutes now that major interstate highways have been completed -- there are five I-66 interchanges in or near Marshall -- and an increasing number of jobs in fringe areas, local planners say.

In fact, the increase in jobs, some planners say, may be one of the most important factors in nonmetropolitan growth. Between 1970 and 1978, according to a study by the Greater Washington Research Center, 195,000 jobs were added to the Washington area economy, nearly all of them in the suburbs. "The idea that people are still continuing to commute to the center is simply wrong," says study author Carol Richards.

But more than economic reasons, social planners say, the "quality of life" syndrome plays a major part in outward migration. People, says Fonseca, "have this very romantic notion about what going 'back to the soil' means."

In the mid-1960s, when plans were completed for a new interstate from Washington to Warren County, Fauquier County officials decided something had to be done. The arrival of I-66, scheduled to slice through the top of the county, could mean only one thing: growth, big growth.

"Fauquier County, 1967-2000" was born and with it a planning commission.

The thick master plan plotting the future of the county made several suggestions. It talked about preserving farmland, the need for more restrictive zoning to prevent uncontrolled development and the necessity for retaining inexpensive housing. But of all the recommendations and predictions, one stands out.

Fauquier County population, the plan said, would reach 76,000 by 1980.

In 1981, 14 years later, the county population is only half that figure. County planners say delays in highway construction and an economic recession have had much to do with the lag. Now, with the completion of I-66, planners expect the population to top 70,000 well before the year 2000.

County planners say they're ready for the big boom and they're prepared to protect much of the rural character of the county. To that end, the county recently revised the master plan, zoning most of the county for one house per five or 10 acres with the majority of growth limited to towns and villages. Even there, the master plan requires that most homes be built on at least half an acre.

"It (Fauquier County) may not ever be a (big) city," says county planner Gray Parker, "but it's going to grow. No doubt about it."

Much of that growth, Parker says, will come from the "drifters."

Several years ago, Michael Greene was living in a townhouse in suburban Springfield, when one of his patients mentioned he had 50 acres in the Marshall District he wanted to sell. Greene, a psychotherapist in McLean, bought the land for $40,000, and in 1977 he, his wife and three children moved into a spacious, 4,500-square-foot rambler they designed. Greene still commutes to McLean, a 55-minute drive, but he hasn't thought twice about moving back. His children have a horse, his garden is overrun with vegetables and his freezer is full of 372 pounds of pork and ham he acquired by trading two cords of wood with a neighbor.

"In Springfield, everything was so stereotypical and so petty," Greene says. "Everyone had the same house. Status was everything.

"I saw my children getting caught up in it and I didn't want them to live like that. I wanted them to have the values of rural living. It just feels good out here."

Greene's reasons for leaving Springfield are not an uncommon litany among ex-suburbanites. Once sought as a haven from city problems, the suburbs have increasingly become shadows of their big-city neighbors as drugs, crime, pollution, isolation and quick-paced living tumble over city borders into once-tranquil neighborhoods. A generation ago, Greene and thousands like him probably would have packed their bags and headed toward suburbs like Springfield; now they have to reach a step further.

"What we're seeing now is the suburbanization of the suburbs," says research author Richards. "People still want the same kind of house, they still want a car in the garage and they still want to have a horse in the country. They're only having to go further out.

"These people are not all that different than the people who were making the move to the suburbs 30 and 40 years ago." And like their suburban counterparts 30 years ago, county planners say, the new residents bring with them a better education and a higher salary than statistics for the average county family reveal. The most recent statistics show that the average family income in Fauquier County is $21,143, but planners say families like the Greenes -- with an income of about $40,000 a year -- average far above that.

But the new residents sometimes forget that the small-town life they've come to find in Marshall can also mean leaving behind some suburban amenities. Accustomed to long lists of city services, newcomers frequently are shocked to find that the attractive low property tax rate in rural areas also can mean no trash pickup and longer bus rides for students. The property tax rate in Marshall is 73 cents for each $100 of assessed value, compared with Fairfax County, where the tax rate is $1.51.

"They move 'em out here to keep from paying bigger taxes downtown and the first thing they want to know is why there's not a tennis court within walking distance," laughs Fauquier County planner Gray Parker. "It doesn't take them long to figure out that if they want low taxes then there are a few things they're going to have to do without."

Ironically, what the newcomers can do without is more growth. Settled on their own acreage, "farmette" owners, as they're called in Marshall, turn out in droves at county planning hearings, making some sessions the best entertainments in town.

"They're very civic-minded," says chief county planner Richard McNear, "and they appreciate what we've got here. But once they've got their 10 acres they don't want anybody else to have any. They want to close the gate after them."

"You can hear the sound of hammering everywhere you wake up in Marshall. Two years ago it wasn't like that," says newcomer Barney Collier.

Collier, a former New York Times reporter, and his wife Maggie, a photographer, have lived in several of the nation's metropolitan centers: Washington, New York City, Detroit. But unlike commuter Greene and the hundreds like him in Marshall who face hour-long drives to get to work each morning, Collier spends most of his time in Marshall.

"My agent called from New York the other day and said, 'You've got to keep a diary. You're doing what all these guys up here want to do,' " says Collier, who still jots down a few lines, but now spends most days in his new role as owner of the John Marshall Restaurant and Pub. Collier does everything from cooking to playing wine steward in the year-old restaurant.

"There is no such thing as the relaxed country life. The only time there is not a lot to do is when there is a big snow storm in the middle of February and you can't get out," Collier laughs.

When the Colliers first left New York, they rented a farm in neighboring Middleburg. Two years later, they decided to make Middleburg their home. But when they tried to buy land, they discovered a new, but predictable, phenomenon: the increasing popularity in rural areas has been accompanied by a corresponding jump in real estate prices. Middleburg, long known as a haven for millionaires, was no exception.

The next stop was Marshall, where Collier was advised land was more affordable.

Two years ago, Collier bought a 30-acre farm just outside Marshall for $100,000.

"You can still find land in Marshall that's not hyper-inflated," Collier says. "That's not true in Middleburg."

Collier admits he sometimes considers returning to the city. There is a certain splash, a certain sophistication, that just does not exist in rural areas. But in the midst of his nostalgia for big cities, he pauses.

"My son Alexander, who is 5 years old, came home the other day with his boots tied around his neck, filled with blackberries. He had been gone three hours, but we were never worried about him. It's not like that in the city."