Several years ago, Linda McIntosh, a 31-year-old housewife from rural Nanjemoy, Md., installed a bright white satellite dish antenna in her back yard that allowed her to pull signals from more than 100 television stations out of the sky and into her den.
Because McIntosh's house is tucked in the woods, none of her Southern Maryland neighbors objected to the 10-foot-diameter dish that loomed between several sheds and a grapevine. "It's strictly country down here," she explained.
Closer to Washington, however, arguments between dish haters and devotees appear to be slowly heating up, as more communities debate the esthetics of dotting the already crowded suburban landscape with these large, sky-scanning devices.
Where disputes of this sort occur, they almost always pit the right of the individual against the broader wishes of the neighborhood residents.
"We don't particularly want a satellite dish," said Susan Mosser, 33, a graphic artist from Prince William County's Lake Ridge community. "But we feel like it should be our prerogative. We're sort of 'Your home is your castle' type of people."
Others strongly disagree, saying they don't want their view -- and, possibly, the value and appearance of their property -- robbed by powerful, pivoting dishes next door.
"I think it's as ugly as sin," said a Bethesda resident, who prefers to remain anonymous when discussing her neighbors' new satellite dish. "I know it means the future is here, but I hate the way it looks."
A recent dispute involves Max Parsons, 35, a Coast Guard statistician from Herndon, who tried to make his satellite dish less offensive to neighbors by hiding it inside a striped picnic table umbrella.
His community of Franklin Farm, which has a strict covenant against such structures, has ordered it removed by next Friday.
"The way it is right now is very unattractive," complained neighbor Susan Chin, echoing the views expressed by many area residents at a recent public meeting. "People don't realize it until they have to see it in person."
Parsons, who installed the dish in part because he loves old sci-fi movies and knew he could pull in many with satellite-tracking gear, and who changed the color of the umbrella from maroon to brown in an extra effort to make it fit in, is appealing the case.
For television fans such as Parsons, the appeal of a satellite dish is the wide range of programs -- many more than can be obtained with a cable system. "With cable, you pick up a bucket of sand," said John Tomlin, vice president of Home Satellite Inc. of Springfield. "With a dish, you get the whole beach."
With 150-odd channels to choose from, viewers can tune into traffic reports from Los Angeles, bullfights from Mexico, news from Canada. The monthly television guide is as thick as a phone book.
"My husband says I'd have to leave before he'd get rid of the dish," joked owner McIntosh, who enjoys the all-health channel and now prefers watching movies at home to standing in line at a theater.
Although the dishes have been on the market for several years, a combination of high prices and federal regulation kept them out of the reach of most people until recently, said Fred Finn, a lawyer for the Satellite Television Industry Association, a nationwide trade group with more than 2,000 members.
Then, almost overnight, what had been a $100,000 piece of equipment shrank to a more affordable device -- if only for the wealthy, said Finn. In 1979, Neiman-Marcus offered in its Christmas catalogue an "exciting new space-age development" -- a gleaming, white $36,500 satellite dish that was nearly as large as the western ranch house against which it was photographed.
"The antenna directly points to the selected satellite in orbit above the Equator," the glossy ad read, "giving you choices from a staggering lineup of entertainment and information events to view from your armchair."
In succeeding years, prices kept dropping. Today, local dealers say the average back yard dish costs about $3,500, and the diameter of the most popular dishes has shrunk to eight or 10 feet.
As a result, popularity has increased. Finn's group estimates there were about 5,000 home satellite dishes in the nation in 1980, 144,000 in 1982 and 900,000 last year. About 780,000 will be installed this year alone, he predicted.
Hal Haley of Davis Antenna Inc. in Waldorf says he is installing 30 to 40 dishes a month in the metropolitan area. He predicts that the industry will continue to grow, erecting about 10,000 dishes a year in Maryland and Virginia by 1986 and 3,000 to 4,000 in the District.
For dealers such as Haley, the biggest sales obstacle is not price, or even local zoning codes, which generally permit the dishes if setback and building requirements are met. Rather, it is subdivision covenant restrictions, which can tightly control everything from outdoor antennas to fence styles.
"I would imagine we could probably increase business by 50 percent if we could get away from these covenants," he said.
"We run into it quite a bit," agreed Don Heinicke, service manager for Action Earth Satellite.
"The covenant area is difficult," said attorney Finn, whose group is dedicated to fighting anti-dish ordinances. "There have been virtually no cases in the courts on the enforcement of covenants against satellite dishes because the issue hasn't been there long enough."
The Federal Communications Commission is weighing a proposal that would preempt local satellite dish restrictions if a community imposes them in order to protect other systems, such as cable television, said spokeswoman Maureen Peratino. A decision is expected this fall.
In some areas, there is no controversy. Leo Bland, a 49-year-old mechanic supervisor from Hyattsville, installed a satellite dish last week so his family could sample a variety of sports programs and movies. His neighbors did not object; in fact, several already own dishes, he said.
Elsewhere, several communities, such as the 1,800-home King's Park West in Fairfax County, hope cable will gain customers, thus forestalling debate over the dishes, said Sharon Bulova, the civic association president.
Dishes are not specifically addressed in King's Park West covenants. The only case Bulova remembers involved a man who was pressured by neighbors to move his dish from the front to the back yard.
In some other communities, such as Reston, dishes are banned and the issue simply has never come up, said Janet Howell, president of the 1,200-member Reston Community Association.
At Prince William's Lake Ridge community of 5,000 homes, conventional television antenna laws appear to prohibit the installation of satellite dishes, but nobody has tried to erect one, said architectural director Martha Kaczmarskyj.
"A dish in somebody's front yard, that would be a no-no," said Pat Huson, executive director of the Montgomery Village Foundation, which represents 6,000 homes in suburban Maryland and turned down the only request for a satellite dish antenna.
Fairfax County's Burke Centre development of 5,000 homes prohibits even conventional rooftop antennas under most circumstances. While the covenants do not specifically refer to satellite dishes, "I'm sure they wouldn't fit in here," said Edward L. Campbell, president of the board of trustees.
Although dishes can be purchased in a variety of colors and see-through mesh materials, the framework is visible. And, because an antenna must have a direct line of sight to the horizon, they cannot be hidden behind buildings or trees.
"We moved out here to be in the trees," said the Bethesda woman who lives next door to a dish, "and now here's this big white thing. I've been trying to figure out why I hate it, and I can't. But I hate it, I hate it, I hate it."
But some, such as Haley of Davis Antenna, predict that community attitudes will change as satellite dishes become more common.
"Who ever saw a barbecue that looks pretty?" he asked. "But we've come to accept them. It's like telephone poles -- you drive down the road and you don't see them anymore."