Barbara Howell, 38 years old and mentally handicapped, was at the microphone. Her words were coming out in an emotional torrent, but the message was clear:

"I once lived in an institution, but now I'm glad to be able to live in a home or apartment," she said. "Mentally retarded people aren't here to kill people. They're here to be loved."

Her words were warmly applauded by many of the more than 150 persons attending a Prince William County public hearing on a proposed home for the mentally retarded. But would-be neighbors opposed to the home were left squirming in their seats.

"There they went and dragged all these people up to speak and made us look inhumane and insensitive, like we were standing against family and apple pie," said neighborhood spokeswoman Mae Weiss after the county supervisors approved a zoning variance paving the way for the house.

"I love old people, but I don't want a nursing home in our development. I love cats and dogs, but I don't want a kennel here. I'm not against the mentally retarded. This just isn't the place for them," Weiss said.

"Oh, everyone is for the mentally retarded," said Karen Smith, executive director of Insight, a nonprofit group that runs county homes for the mentally retarded. "But no one wants them in their neighborhood."

Neighbors of the proposed home, however, say their opposition is based on other things. They say they are frustrated with county administrators, whom they charge with railroading the proposal through while failing to listen to their concerns and dismissing them as unenlightened and insensitive.

They charge that Insight officials have misled them and have withheld information they requested. They also say the land for the home is too hilly to provide recreation facilities for the residents. Insight and HUD officials deny all charges.

"It's very frustrating for a special-interest group to be able to get whatever they want while we aren't even listened to," Weiss said. "This whole thing has alienated the neighborhood to the point where . . . Insight may move in here but only two families will associate with them."

The controversy started in September when Insight, which has a contract with the county to provide supervised care for partially self-sufficient mentally handicapped persons, sent a letter to neighbors of the Cumberland Woods subdivision in Coles, stating it had bought a half-acre lot on which it planned to build a home for the retarded.

Although state law mandates that group homes for the elderly and mentally and physically handicapped may be placed in residential areas, Insight discovered too late that Cumberland Woods, a 2-year-old subdivision of moderately priced houses, is zoned rural and therefore not is covered under the law.

The group appealed in September to the county Board of Supervisors for a zoning variance, which all but two families in the 47-home Cumberland Woods subdivision opposed. That variance request resulted in last week's 6-to-0 vote by the supervisors in favor of the proposal (one abstained).

"They'll get over it. They always seem to," said Insight's Smith. "I understand their fears, but the exact same thing has been said so often you could probably just play tape recordings at our hearings. So often the mentally retarded are confused with people that are mentally ill. People are always concerned, yet they always end up accepting us and forgetting we're there."

Under the proposal, Smith said, Insight, which receives operating funds from the county, state and the United Fund, will finance the $31,500 Cumberland Woods lot using part of a $600,000 HUD loan.

The low-interest loan is being used to build the group house there, which will be completed next summer, and two others: one under construction on Sharon Road in Triangle and one planned for Manassas. No sites for those two have been selected, officials said.

The three new homes will replace three homes Insight is renting. Insight established its first group home in 1974, and Smith said some of the initial residents, such as Howell, have acquired enough everyday survival skills to have been able to move out and into their own apartments.

Neighbors say the Cumberland Woods lot on Tobacco Road and the lot under construction in Triangle are on sloping hills that are inappropriate for recreation facilities.

HUD spokesman Rudolf Bertrang said the Triangle lot met HUD approval and the Cumberland Woods lot will be inspected before HUD approves it. Smith said HUD officials have told her there will be no problem with approval for the site.

Smith said Insight did more than it was required to do under the law by notifying the Cumberland Woods residents of their plans.

"Some communities in the state aren't even notified that a house will be put in their neighborhood, but we notified them," she said. "What they want is for us to ask their permission to locate our house in their neighborhood. If we did that, we would never be able to locate anywhere."