The people of Garrett Park have always been a feisty lot.

When Grace E. Spriggs insisted on T installing indoor plumbing in her house in the 1890s, the town marshal was dispatched to rip it out. The plumbing, said the townsfolk, endangered the livelihood of the man who emptied the outhouses and violated standards of decency and sanitation.

In the 1950s, residents were asked a number of times whether they wanted mail delivered to their homes. Each time they voted overwhelmingly to stick with the system of picking up their own mail at the town post office. They liked going there.

And come May 3, residents of this tree-shaded town northwest of Kensington are expected to rebel once again against technology. On that day, voters will be asked to declare the 123-acre community a nuclear-free zone, one of the first such actions in the country.

The move would put Garrett Park, a town of 1,200, at the fore of the hundreds of townships and counties around the nation that in recent months have sent a message to Washington, calling for a halt to the buildup of nuclear weapons. The majority of those communities have endorsed resolutions calling for a nuclear freeze.

The Garrett Park referendum goes one step further than those resolutions, however. It prohibits nuclear weapons, or the means of their production, within the town's boundaries.

In Maryland, the Baltimore City Council and the county councils of Howard and Montgomery have endorsed resolutions calling for a nuclear weapons freeze. Similar resolutions have failed in Prince George's County, however. The state Senate passed a nuclear freeze resolution, but the measure died when the House Judiciary Committee failed to approve it.

"It's a gesture, but it is something that a locality can do to send a direct message to our national leaders that it just doesn't make sense to keep going, going and going with the nuclear arms race," said Eugene McDowell, vice president of the Garrett Park civic association and sponsor of the referendum, which was unanimously endorsed by the town's five-member council early last month. At the same meeting, the council voted to endorse a resolution calling for an end to nuclear weapons production.

"Our object is not just to say we've passed a resolution opposing the nuclear arms buildup, but to say that the voters believe the nuclear race is dangerous enough that we don't want to be a part of it," continued McDowell, a research analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We'd like other localities to go the one step further and follow our example."

Leaders of the national nuclear freeze movement say the Garrett Park measure may be the first test of its kind in this country. The idea has been used internationally, however, and McDowell says he modeled his referendum after similar ones passed in England. Residents of some English towns near areas of planned nuclear deployment, inspired by the antinuclear movement spreading through Western Europe, have called for the imposition of nuclear-free zones. And in Latin America, a number of countries have signed the Treaty of Tlateloco, which bans nuclear arms in Central and South America.

Driving through the streets of Garrett Park, named from the novels of Sir Walter Scott, a visitor might be surprised to be told the quiet, homey community was at the center of a debate over nuclear annihilation. There are few fences here, and many birds. The grass is mown, but not too short. Garrett Park has that kind of lived-in, loved-in look.

But on the bike trails, at the monthly potluck luncheons and on the tree-lined streets, residents, a mixture of white-collar professionals and elderly citizens, are discussing the measure. Town fathers are expecting one of the larger turnouts for their meeting later this month, when residents will gather on the pine benches in the white-clapboarded town hall to debate the nuclear prohibition.

"Even though it's a very tranquil environment here, and maybe not a likely place for something like a large-scale nuclear debate, people in Garrett Park are very well-informed and like to take strong stands on a lot of issues," says town clerk Glenda Ingham, who adds there is very little opposition to the measure. "People, for the most part, are very liberal here and feel it (the nuclear freeze) is one of the most important issues facing all Americans today."

Like many in the community, Ingham and her husband Ken were involved in the state-wide campaign for a nuclear freeze before joining the local effort. The state effort, comprising groups such as the Montgomery and Prince George's-based Nuclear Arms Freeze Task Force of Maryland, the Maryland Catholic Council of Bishops and a state chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, has set up phone banks, speakers' bureaus and petition drives seeking 5,000 signatures in each of the state's eight congressional districts.

According to state-wide coordinator Dan Jerrems of Baltimore, that number already has been reached in Montgomery County and about 2,000 signatures have been collected in Prince George's.

Like movements elsehwere around the country, Jerrems says, the Maryland campaign has grown at an exponential rate. Now, in addition to sponsoring petition drives and speakers' bureaus, Jerrems says, the state organization is soliciting the support of labor unions and other major organizations.

At a meeting of the local task force late last month, Dr. Alexander Leaf, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Harvard University and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, met with doctors at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring to discuss the devastating effects of nuclear war.

"It (the nuclear freeze campaign) has taken off at an unbelievable rate," says Jerrems, who works as a physician's assistant. "We're looking to get an across-the-board section of support. When the bomb falls it's not going to distinguish between liberals and conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. It's everyone's issue."

Elsewhere in the Washington area, Loudoun County has endorsed a nuclear freeze resolution, but one council member has said he wants it rescinded. In the District of Columbia, members of the D.C. Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze are attempting to put the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot.