When Jim Hunt looks at College Mountain, he sees the finest ski slope in Maryland -- just waiting for the trails to be cut.

He sees an 800-foot vertical drop, best in the state, with potential expansion to 1,000 feet if he can gain access to the peak at Carrick Knob; he sees a north-facing slope where his machine-made snow will survive warm spells, and he sees 3,000 skiers a day making the 90-minute drive from Washington and Baltimore.

"This place is made for a ski area," said Hunt.

When Ed Hatter looks at College Mountain he sees something different: a wilderness near the Pennsylvania border where he has lived his 28 years in the peaceful company of clear streams, Indian relics, bluebirds, wild turkeys, deer and grouse. "When we went together in high school," said his wife Susie, "Eddie's dream was always to build his own house on College Mountain."

A few years ago Hatter, an electrician by trade, built his dream. Now Jim Hunt intends to build his, and to put arc lights and snow guns 100 yards or so from Hatter's house and to run them brightly and noisily into the bitter night.

Both can't have their dreams at once, and thus a battle is formed.

On one side stand Hatter and a small, vocal band of area residents called the Eyler Valley Civic Association, who want College Mountain, a designated Frederick County conservation zone, left alone.

On the other are Hunt and his bosses, who own two busy Pennsylvania ski areas, Roundtop and Liberty, and who recently joined forces in the planned $12 million College Mountain development with Washington, D.C., lawyer Barry Maloney. Maloney had been mounting his own campaign to develop the mountain, and for a while he was suing his current partners.

The developers have the support of some local merchants, who believe the area needs the jobs and business; but they do not have an endorsement from county officials, who expect that the conflict may wind up in court.

When Hatter built his home, he put it on a lot of more than five acres with 300 feet of road frontage, following the restrictions for building in a conservation zone.

Now Hunt, project manager for Ski College Mountain, plans to start clearing trees in the spring for his 525-acre complex, which lies in the same protected zone.

Hatter and his colleagues don't see how a ski resort, with its lights, lifts, machinery, buildings and clear-cut trails, is compatible with an environmental protection area.

"If you're going to have a conservation zone," said Mike Hanning, who lives in a 150-year-old log house near Hatter, "you can't change the law every time someone wants to put something up, or you won't have anything left."

County Planning Director Jim Shaw said that no one has changed any law. He and others monitoring the College Mountain issue say the developers are advancing their plans as if all legal obstacles to the project had been hurdled, when in fact they are yet to be addressed.

Shaw said the developers "obviously have a well-designed scheme for what they want to do," which he said apparently includes "making it seem as if the proposal has approval before it does."

To that apparent end, Ski College Mountain recently opened and staffed a three-person information center on the square in downtown Emmitsburg (pop. 1,500) and printed a glossy, color-illustrated pamphlet describing in cheerful detail the occupational, recreational and environmental benefits of the plan.

"Usually, if there's as much of a legal question as there is here, you don't go printing slick brochures," said a puzzled Shaw.

The legal dispute is this:

Frederick County's zoning code permits certain modest development in "C1" conservation zones, including forestry, agriculture, one-family residences and country inns.

But the stated goal of C1 is to "protect and preserve areas of natural resources, including woodlands, wildlife habitat, scenic areas, steep slopes" and other environmentally significant features.

The code prohibits all "commercial amusements," such as country clubs, swimming pools, tennis courts and skating rinks. But it nowhere specifically bars ski areas.

Opponents say the developers are banking on a section that permits "civic parks or recreational areas" in conservation zones.

The question then becomes whether "civic" refers only to parks, or to both parks and recreation areas.

"It all comes down to the English language, and how it's interpreted," Shaw said.

"The regulations say recreation areas are permitted," Hunt agreed. "We feel ski areas are recreation areas and should be allowed."

"I'd just have to leave" if the ski trails went in, said Hatter, who from his front window already sees the glaring night lights of Ski Liberty, seven miles away in Fairfield, Pa., and the clouds shooting from Liberty's snow guns.

Others in the Eyler Valley Civic Association cite potential dangers of excessive water use by the snowmakers, perils to wildlife and the creeks where trout swim, the danger of too much traffic on the dirt roads leading to the ski site, noise pollution from the snow guns and light pollution from the arc lights.

In response, Hunt says that the ski area would generate 25 full-time jobs and 300 seasonal jobs in an area of underemployment, $100,000 a year to the county in amusement taxes and a $12 million increase in its tax base.

"And it's relatively pollution-free," he said. "It generates a little noise, a little light. There's no chemical expulsion in the air or on the ground. We're dealing with water here.

"It's development, sure," Hunt said, "but it's not ostentatious development. Look, this mountain was made for skiing. I feel very positive about the project."

County officials expect Ski College Mountain to seek site plan approval or building approval within a few months, so construction could begin to meet the target opening date of December 1986.

A long legal battle could ensue, which Eddie Hatter and and Jim Hunt would watch carefully.

To see whose dream wins.