The rulings were issued after a closed-door session in mid-December: Rodney Jones can repaint his house "a warm beige," Warren D. Hancock can cut down a poplar tree, and Paul Lombardi should paint his basketball backboard "Reston brown."

The judge was Reston's Design Review Board, an institution created by Reston's founder when he built his Camelot more than two decades ago.

In developer Robert E. Simon's view, the board had a singular focus. "Bad taste," he said recently. "That's what we were hoping to prevent."

Today, Reston's nine-member board wields architectural influence over about 17,000 housing units in one of the nation's largest planned communities. If property owners want to change the external appearance of their property, they must first get approval of the Design Review Board.

But controversy over the board's attention to minutiae is brewing in this covenant-controlled community of 50,000. In recent months, the institution created to prevent visual anarchy has found itself under siege.

The attack comes from some of the well-educated, sophisticated newcomers who have transformed a developer's dream into a thriving urban center.

"We could live without them," said Paul Lyons, a Reston resident who ran afoul of the board last year over a back yard deck and organized the watchdog group, CURE -- Citizens United for Reston Esthetics.

"Somewhere along the way, they've developed these fetishes on minor details like doorknobs and basketball backboards," according to Lyons, who is a former executive director of Amnesty International's U.S. affiliate.

CURE has helped rekindle a debate that has swelled, then subsided over the years, about what the Design Review Board should be doing.

Next month, some members of the community's internal governing body, the Reston Association, hope to persuade the Design Review Board to shift its focus. The Reston Association oversees the review board's budget, which was $109,000 in 1987 and which comes from assessments levied on homeowners.

"We do need something to control polka dot houses, but the Design Review Board should confine itself to egregious violations," said Mike Freeman, who is on the Reston Association's board of directors. "They've got to get a better handle on what's important and what's not."

Members of the appointed Design Review Board defend the attention they pay to the minute details.

"There are some yards out there that are just awful," architect Bill Elkjer said of other towns. "If we didn't have the authority to say, 'You can't do that,' that would happen."

Appearances have always been taken seriously in this western Fairfax County community, which now has more jobs than households. Many of the buildings are in muted earth tones, harmonizing with each other and 1,000 acres of parks and open space.

All property is subject to the Reston deed, which includes covenants aimed at "maintaining the high aesthetic standards that make Reston such an attractive and desirable place to live."

The Design Review Board interprets the town's design covenants in a way that one Reston official likened to the deliberations of the Supreme Court. It reviews 75 percent of the 2,000 applications for home alterations that are submitted each year. The rest are handled by administrative staff.

The board consists of seven architects and two laymen, who volunteer to serve staggered three-year terms. Four are appointed by the community's current developer, the Reston Land Corp., four are named by the Reston Association, and the ninth is a joint appointment.

Homeowners are told what they can expect from the board in a 42-page manual on design guidelines.

They are instructed on the correct look of everything from decks and doghouses to storm doors, electronic insect traps, trellises and the color of house paint.

An entire page of the residents' manual is devoted to basketball backboards. "Freestanding backboards and poles must be painted in a flat gray-brown (Reston brown)," the booklet states.

Every Tuesday night, a three-member panel of the Design Review Board assembles in a conference room to pass its judgments, which are enforced by the Reston Association. Disgruntled residents are allowed to appeal to another panel of the board.

Offenders can be threatened with a notice of violation, similar to a lien on their property, or taken to court in extreme cases.

But the actual threat of the board is open to question. While 28 suits were filed in court against violators in the past three years, they were resolved without trial.

Freeman, who heads the Reston Association's legal committee, said he suspects "massive noncompliance" from what he sees on his rounds of Reston. Many residents, he said, probably ignore the board when it comes to minor home alterations.

To Paul Lyons, the Design Review Board has become Reston's "Esthetics Fuzz."

Lyons, a computer software designer who owns a $150,000 town house, said he was notified by mail this summer that his $5,000 back yard deck failed to pass muster with the Design Review Board. He was ordered to remove the deck's supporting braces because the braces created "visual bulk."

"I wondered, 'Why are they bothering with this sort of thing? I was annoyed. At some point, you have to take a stand," he said.

Lyons began a publicity campaign for CURE, counseled other frustrated property owners, and made his presence known at meetings of the Design Review Board.

Lyons has been the board's most vocal critic, but he is not the only one.

"I think they take themselves a little too seriously," said Elizabeth Parsons, a landscape designer who served on the Design Review Board in the mid-1970s.

Parsons was ordered to scrap a fishpond in front of her town house, the same pond that was honored by the Reston Garden Club for landscape excellence. "It bugs me when they worry about all these little details," Parsons said.

Lynn Brenneman, an engineer, was recently told to remove the lattice screening on his back yard deck. The Design Review Board ruled that the diagonal lattices were "in visual conflict with the vertical pickets" of the deck's wooden railing. It recommended that the lattices be replaced with plants.

Brenneman, who moved into a Colonial-style home in February, called the board's decision unfair, saying he and his wife Diane have seen several decks with similar lattices. He said that about eight neighbors wrote letters in support of their latticework.

"This kind of stuff is really silly," said Diane Brenneman, a homemaker. "I just feel like they are going off in the wrong direction."

And Guy Rando said he will continue his fight against the review board's ruling that a house he designed consisted of "unnecessary, inharmonious architectural gymnastics."

"To this day, I keep asking the question, 'What is inharmonious architectural gymnastics?" Rando said. "It's the only place in the world that has these things, and nobody can tell you what they are."

In many ways, the debate over the review board reflects the growing pains of Reston, the vision of a New York real estate investor who wrote his initials into the name.

The Design Review Board came into being in 1964 when the "new town" was gripped with a pioneering spirit that saw a flurry of construction. But Reston has changed.

"We are getting more and more people who no longer realize that this is a planned community," said Pamela Chaiet, who is on the board of directors of the Reston Association. "When they are faced with the ideas Reston was founded on, it comes as a very big surprise . . . . They don't want to be bothered with some of the minor things that look very much like an infringement of their rights."

In the past three years, Reston officials said, the public has become more involved in the community's design review process. Streamlined procedures have allowed more design applications to be handled automatically by the community's administrative staff. In addition, neighbors now are notified of a property owner's alteration plans and can appear before the board.

The chairman of the Design Review Board, Douglas Carter, said members are sensitive to the public perception of the board as the "big, bad ogre," but he added that the institution has helped Reston become what it is today: "a very, very attractive community."

As Reston grows older, Carter and other members insist that the board should retain more influence than ever.

But Lyons vows to keep on the case of the "Esthetics Fuzz." This spring, his watchdog group, CURE, plans to sponsor a satirical review of the designs of the homes of all nine Design Review Board members. The contest will be called the "DRAB (Design Review Almighty Board) House Contest."

"Other people just ignore them. I say 'no.' If you ignore them, they won't go away," Lyons said.