Since the mid-60s, the pastoral beauty of Howard County has attracted urbanites longing for the rural life and developers anxious to exploit its lucrative access to the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Unfortunately, while Howard's population nearly tripled, from 48,198 in 1966 to 130,108 in 1980, and its operating budget soared from $8.8 million to $92 million, the growth also brought dramatic increases in crime.

"People began to feel like prisoners in their own homes," Dottie Savage, a Mount Hebron housewife, said.

But the citizens of Howard County, nestled in the heart of Maryland between the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers, have been fighting back. And while serious crime throughout the Baltimore-Washington area continued to increase, in Howard County it fell 7.2 percent the first six months of this year, according to police statistics.

"This is the first time in my recollection that we have had two successive quarters where the overall crime rate has dropped," police spokesman Randolph Roby said. "People are fed up. They are tired of being victims of crime."

At the heart of the change has been the desire of Howard County citizens to become, in effect, an extension of the 182-strong police force. More than 170 neighborhood watch programs now operate in the 250-square-mile county.

"We're doing a fabulous job," Savage said. "Just last April we saw three men and a woman trying to burglarize three homes in our neighborhood. The police caught two of them immediately after we reported it.

"We look out for each other now. It's a way of protecting ourselves."

Whatever the explanation, crime has dropped. According to police statistics, rapes declined 25 percent and assaults dropped more than 30 percent. Thefts fell 7.8 percent and breaking and entering declined 1.2 percent.

These declines are in sharp contrast to the increases of the past.

In 1970, there were 495 cases of breaking and entering, 1,030 reported thefts, 88 felonious assaults and 16 robberies. A decade later, police recorded about four times as many breaking and enterings, felonious assaults and robberies and nearly three times as many thefts.

"Studies showed that a lot of the crimes were being committed by transient criminals from the Washington and Baltimore areas who came up to unsuspecting Howard County," Roby said.

Compounding the problem was what one resident called "rural naivete": Howard County residents often assumed that crime couldn't happen to them.

Roby said it was not unusual to investigate huge thefts from construction sites and find that builders had put expensive appliances in homes where doors had not been installed.

Although there are still some 300 commercial farms in western Howard County, the county's business and population growth has been dramatic.

Not only is Howard Maryland's fastest growing county, it is the fourth fastest growing metropolitan county in the country, county spokesman Tom Goodman said.

Police said this year's crime statistics are no fluke and crime prevention has finally caught up with crime in Howard County. Many Howard County citizens agree.

"I think the primary force behind that has been the police department," said Richard Matlick, a research consultant who lives in Oakland Mills.

"They've overcome a lot of basic attitudes citizens had about calling the police," Matlick continued. "I used to be the only person around here who reported things. Now when I call two or three other people already have."

Howard County's busy court system, however, has not found relief with the drop in crime. About 400 more indictments have been filed in the first half of 1981 than were last year.

"We've got three judges and are supposed to have a fourth and one of our three judges is recovering from a stroke," Assistant State's Attorney Dwight Thompson said. "We haven't seen a break at all."