Virginia Clagett of Georgetown, the Madeira School and Smith College moved to Holly Hill, a 17th century country estate near the village of Friendship in Anne Arundel County, in 1968. A world away from megalopolis, it still was close enough for her husband, Brice McAdoo Clagett, to commute to work in Washington where he is a partner in the prestigious law firm of Covington & Burling.

It wasn't long before she turned her attention to politics, almost on a whim. She hardly knew where the county council was, but she won handily. In Southern Maryland, the Clagett name alone counts for votes. She also had a slogan: "Let's Control Our County's Growth Before It Controls Us!"

"People down here are very concerned with their life style in a rural area," she said. She moved cautiously at first, butwith her decisive reelection in 1978, Clagett decided she had a mandate to move into the agrarian arena.

It was an arena increasingly surrounded by subdivisions with names that in time could become epitaphs for the still-lush countryside: Huckleberry Woods, Pond View Acres, Rustic Knoll, Soaring Vista, Idlewilde Farm, Cherry Orchard. The developments encircled the farms, especially south of Rte. 50, a pincer movement mapped by metropolitan investors who saw enticing targets of opportunity a mere half-hour or less beyond the Capital Beltway.

Clagett's section of the county remained mostly serene, but she knew that was deceptive. Although harvested acreage had increased in recent years, the percent of county land available for agriculture had dropped by 10 percent since the mid-60s. The number of tenant farmers increased as the land became too expensive for most of the aging agrarians. Most telling, perhaps, was the decline in cattle -- by 1980, there was only one dairy farm in the county -- and the increase in horses.

"The increasing affluence in the county has created a demand for horses and the availability of rural residential property with pastureland has accommodated the trend, as in other suburban counties around Washington," according to a planners' study of farming in Anne Arundel.

Farming, the study concluded, had become a tiny segment of the county's economy but was holding its own "despite its long-term decline under pressure from urban growth." It should be preserved because it "provides important amenities for the larger community, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, an attractive landscape and various recreational opportunities . . . the environmental quality for desired residential development."

The county already had a policy of controlled growth, of steering "desirable development" to areas with adequate public facilities. The planners said it hadn't worked. Nor was a state program to pay farmers not to develop sufficiently funded to make a difference, they said. "Achievement of agricultural goals will depend on more restrictive zoning," they said. But whose goals?

Clagett wanted to halt the spread of metropolitan Washington. The Annapolis Evening Capital editorialized about the need to save the countryside for pleasant Sunday drives, but farmers themselves had traditionally resisted restrictions on their property rights.

Clagett pushed ahead. Conferring with the planners, she considered various schemes to save the land. Montgomery County's "transfer of development rights" regimen was too complex. "Nobody understood it," she said. There would be nothing fancy in Anne Arundel. A straight downzoning would do: The county's two-acre zoning was more appealing to developers than more restrictive rural limits adopted elsewhere, five acres in Prince George's, three in Howard, 50 in Baltimore County, 20 in Carroll. No more than one house for every 20 acres sounded just about right.

Real estate developers and speculators were predictably opposed, environmentalists naturally in favor. Farmers split over the issue. Those against it mounted a tractorcade to the county building in Annapolis a block from the State House. Phrases such as "landed gentry" and "white-collar farmers" were invoked to dismiss the preservationists as countrified city folk anxious to save rural vistas at the expense of real farmers. Proponents saw greedy builders standing behind the fearful farmers.

"Anytime you look at ground, you look at money and power," said County Executive Robert Pascal. "There's always a conflict." On April 7, 1981, Clagett's heavily amended bill squeaked through the County Council, 4-to-3.

More than a year later, the battle has moved to the courts, where a hearing on the Clagett ordinance now is set, after several delays, for July 21. The farmers remain deeply divided.

Farmers who oppose the new zoning have found common cause with developers, speculators and others, including several with Washington area ties. Polly Suraci, who serves on the board of the Anne Arundel Committee to Preserve the Rights of Land Owners, is married to a Washington plastic surgeon. They divide their time between a home in College Park and a 500-acre farm in Davidsonville that Albert Suraci says he may want to subdivide when he retires.

"As close as we are to Washington, development is gonna come," the doctor said at a country dance last month at the Ruritan Hall to raise funds for the lawsuit. Sharing his table was Sonny DeCesaris, who described himself as a builder and owner of 44 acres in Lothian.

Absent from the dance were others who have helped in other ways. Gilbert R. Giordano, an Oxon Hill lawyer who also is board chairman of the United Bank & Trust Co. and an Anne Arundel landowner, witnessed the articles of incorporation his law firm drew up for a land owners group. Theodore Lombard, who commutes between his Harwood home and his law office in Northwest Washington also has supported their efforts.

The alliance has been both a source of strength and embarrassment to the farmers who are portrayed as mere fronts for the big money men. "I'm not on the side of the developers, either," insisted Robert Hardesty, a farmer who leases land from Lombard. "We just got throwed together in the battle."

Lombard moved almost eight years ago to a 75-acre tract named "All Seasons Farm" he owns with five friends in the rural south county. "I'm perfectly willing to pay the price of a couple of hours in the car to wind up in Harwood every night," he said in his elegantly furnished Spring Valley law office.

Even though his interests lie in developing the land -- he and others own 630 more acres that they planned to develop with 255 houses until the zoning changed -- he is "very ambivalent . . . I want the county to remain rural, like the place I came to love . . . I also have business interests which we cultivated many, many years ago." He says the rezoning has stifled development but not in a way that helps the farmer, who "should be able to use his land as he sees fit, as part of his survival portfolio . . . . "

In a sense, Hardesty's "survival portfolio" hinges on the likes of Lombard. Hardesty owns 15 acres and leases the rest from Lombard. "To me, they have just as much right to develop as I would to farm if I had the money to buy it," he said. Hardesty is also a "custom applicator," spreading fertilizer and lime on other farms, a sideline he developed "because I knew sooner or later this farm was going to be something else . . . . "

That outcome may depend on the court case, and on the economy. "Of course, nobody's buying anything these days," observed County Executive Pascal, who said he signed the ordinance with some reservations. "You walk this line between preservation and people's constitutional rights. As a landowner and as a farmer on the Eastern Shore, their arguments had great significance to me."

It is also, he notes, "of great political concern." So Pascal, a Republican who is running for governor, has been meeting with the farmers to find an acceptable legislative solution, possibly permitting farmers to build on a few more lots than otherwise allowed. George Bachman, County Council chairman now running for county executive, attended a bullroast to raise money for the court case, though he voted for the Clagett bill.

They are beating the bushes, too, for someone to beat Clagett, who is seeking a third term. For the first time, she must run in a geographical area rather than county-wide as before. Her district will include Crofton, a contrast in congestion to her husband's ancestral home with its six fireplaces, sculpted gardens, stables and pond along with 261 acres planted in corn and tobacco. Nonetheless, the commuter community and Clagett share similar values, she believes: "controlling growth, keeping the countryside around them."