In 1979, when convicted Watergate felon Charles W. Colson tried unsuccessfully to buy an Arlington church and convert it to the headquarters for his Prison Fellowship, residents raised such emotional objections to having ex-convicts in their neighborhood that Colson said he wasn't sure he wanted "my inmates in contact with them."

Last month Colson signed a preliminary contract to buy a 5.2-acre Reston estate and turn it into the headquarters of his born-again prison ministry and, so far, the reception from the Fairfax County town has been quite different.

Several of Reston's civic leaders say that they welcome Colson's proposal to convert the long-vacant, white-columned Victorian mansion owned by distiller A. Smith Bowman into the international headquarters of his multimillion-dollar, nonprofit ministry.

More importantly, the grass-roots opposition that had helped to torpedo Colson's Arlington plan has not materialized.

"I haven't heard any kind of scare stuff about ex-cons terrorizing the neighborhood," said Judy Ushio, president of the 38,000-member Reston Homeowners Association, who supports Colson's plans. "I've even heard people say it may be good to have a few of those people around to show teen-agers why they should keep to the straight and narrow."

"I don't have any misgivings about this," said Harry Mustakos, president of the Reston Community Association. "The plans that I've seen look good. I think it's a reasonable plan, a reasonable organization, and should be received in the spirit of Christian fellowship until proven otherwise."

Colson's deputies hope that this kind of community support will persuade the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to "down-zone" the property this spring to permit construction of the $3 million complex.

The land currently is zoned to permit construction of a high-rise hotel that never was built. Prison Fellowship officials want to rehabilitate the Bowman mansion and build a pair of Williamsburg-style office buildings on the property.

Inmates would not be housed overnight at the complex, these officials emphasize, and any soon-to-be released inmates who might travel there for conferences would be carefully screened.

"The Reston community has been super," said Fellowship president Gordon D. Loux. "I'm very, very confident that this will be approved. What happened in Arlington is that there were all sorts of rumors that we were running a halfway house, which we weren't. Also, I'd say that the Reston community is a different community than Arlington. It's younger, more progressive."

Neverthless, Colson, whose organization's 1983 budget is expected to reach nearly $6 million, is taking no chances. He has hired one of Fairfax's most prestigious law firms, headed by John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., to handle the rezoning.

Colson, who had pleaded the Prison Fellowship's case before the Arlington County Board, has not been involved in the community meetings that his organization's officials have been holding in Reston.

Furthermore, Loux said, Colson probably will not appear before the supervisors.

"I don't see a need for Mr. Colson . . . to take a high profile in this thing," said Loux, president of the six-year-old ministry that has numerous chapters in the United States and in countries as distant as New Guinea.

Despite Loux's optimism, Martha Pennino, the Centreville District supervisor who represents the town, is uncertain about the proposal.

"Certainly I would like to see the mansion preserved," said Pennino, who has not yet met with Prison Fellowship officials about the proposal. "But I want to know more about what kinds of operations would take place there. Nobody innocent goes to prison, and my commitment is to the law-abiding citizens, not to these people."