Last month, a newly formed political group in Falls Church declared that it would field three candidates in May's City Council election. The terms of three council members expire June 30.

The announcement by the Falls Church Citizens Organization means that for the first time in a decade, the election will be contested.

What is unclear is whether the new group can appeal to enough voters to carry its candidates to victory and can keep membership alive past the May 10 election, introducing for the first time a permanent second political party to Falls Church.

The city's first and, until this year, only nonpartisan political party is a 625-member group called Citizens for a Better City (CBC), formed in 1959 to help fight for quality schools and low-density development. Today, many in the city credit CBC with playing a significant role in building the city's highly regarded school system and preserving its small-town atmosphere.

Since 1971, no candidate has won election to the seven-member City Council without the backing of CBC, which has always held a nominating convention several months before an election. Traditionally, candidates entering the convention who do not win the group's endorsement drop out of the race. The 1978 election was the last one in which CBC nominees faced opposition at the polls from candidates who did not go into the convention.

On Feb. 4, about 400 residents turned up at a CBC convention to choose three out of five declared candidates. The votes went to incumbents Edward B. Strait and J. Roger Wollenberg and School Board member Philip J. Walsh.

Early last week, the Falls Church Citizens Organization, which has about 225 members, announced its three nominees: longtime civic activist Sue Bachtel, James Slattery and Cynthia Garner.

FCCO President Hugh Long said his group organized last fall and began actively recruiting members in December. He said the group was formed to introduce an alternative political force in the city where, FCCO members say, officials are unresponsive and think they can do anything they want.

"They just have no sense of responsibility," said Slattery, a lawyer, referring to city officials. "They {the council members} have numerous executive sessions discussing numerous topics, but we don't know what they are."

Said Garner, also a lawyer: "They seem to feel they have somewhat of an unlimited budget for doing anything they want. It's almost like a little kid in a candy store -- that is the perception."

But Nancy Stock, a former council member and a CBC member, called the charges "ridiculous."

"My judgment is that the City Council is very responsive to citizens," she said. "Any citizen can go to any City Council meeting and voice whatever he or she wants to. The membership of boards and commissions is very open. All {citizens} need to do is apply . . . and they will certainly be considered."

John Bailey, who helped found FCCO last fall, said he dropped out of the group in January, partly because he felt some group members had "unreasonable hostility toward CBC."

"I thought that they had unreasonable views of what CBC is," Bailey said. "I don't have any conspiracy view of CBC at all, and I got whiffs of that from the people I was dealing with."

The belief of FCCO members boils down to this: City officials want to finance numerous expensive projects, and the only way to get enough money for the projects is to overdevelop the city and expand the tax base.

"They're in the real estate game to raise money to buy things, some of which we don't need and don't want," said Bachtel, who works for the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Bachtel entered the CBC convention two years ago but dropped out of the race when she lost the nomination.

The FCCO candidates point to the long list of projects for which City Manager Anthony H. Griffin and the council have expressed support or interest. The list includes the reconstruction of Broad Street (the mile-long section of Rte. 7/Leesburg Pike that runs through Falls Church), a group home for troubled teen-age girls, substantial improvements to Four Mile Run, a new library, a new firehouse, an overhaul of the Mount Daniel Elementary School, significant improvements to the George Mason Junior-Senior High School and purchase of the 17-acre Whittier School site from Fairfax County.

"They've too many development balls in the air," Bachtel said. "What they're proposing will overdevelop the city . . . I don't think the left hand knows what the right hand is doing."

At least two issues have fueled discontent among some residents and helped serve as a catalyst for the formation of FCCO: the proposed rezoning of the largest remaining undeveloped tract in the city to allow town house construction and the proposal to start a group home for troubled teen-agers.

FCCO members have argued that city officials and planning staff members have been too accommodating to Northern Virginia developer Ken Jennings, who wants to rezone his seven-acre parcel of land to build town houses. A wooded tract of land adjacent to a residential neighborhood, the parcel is zoned for single-family houses.

Long said he was outraged when council members appeared to him to be unimpressed by a petition bearing 1,100 signatures against the proposed rezoning. "The breakpoint with me was when we handed in the signatures and they seemed to be disregarded," Long said.

But council members said they take the petition very seriously. They have pointed out that a property owner's rezoning request must be given consideration by the city. They have also pointed out that through negotiations between the staff and the developer, the plan's density has been significantly reduced. And most important, they said, they have not yet acted on the proposal.

The issue, however, has been emotional for residents of the neighborhood, many of whom have joined FCCO and feel certain the town house project will be ultimately approved.

Bachtel said such an approval would set a bad precedent for rezonings in other single-family neighborhoods. Garner said it is the type of project that will contribute to the gradual deterioration of the city's small-town atmosphere.

"The beauty of Falls Church is that you can get from one end of the city to the other 30 different ways," Garner said. "It gives you a sense of flow. It {the proposed town house project} gives a real sense of separation and isolation."

The other issue has been the city's proposal to start a residential counseling program for troubled teen-age girls from the city and Arlington. FCCO members say the way city officials handled the proposal indicated that they were out of touch with residents.

Last fall, city officials met with residents to inform them of the city's proposal to start the group home at 407 Little Falls St.

FCCO members say city officials did not bring the issue to the public early enough and continued to support the project when the immediate neighborhood was overwhelmingly opposed to the project.

"The signatures on petitions in favor {of the project} far outnumbered the signatures on two petitions and a number of form letters and individual letters against the project," said Mayor Carol W. DeLong, defending the council's vocal support of the proposal.

Planning Commission member Sally Phillips said the fact that the city's five-member Board of Zoning Appeals ultimately rejected the plan is evidence that officials do not control the city's two dozen boards and commissions and that a satisfactory set of checks and balances does exist.

DeLong views the FCCO as a mixture of residents who are unhappy about current issues as well as those who fought the council's 1985 decision to improve and, in some sections, widen Broad Street.

"I just think that certain people, starting with that {Broad Street} for the basis of their unhappiness, have also focused on other things," she said.

Bachtel admits that if elected, she would "stop the Broad Street widening project in its tracks."

"One of the reasons behind the widening of Broad Street is to pave the way for higher density development," Bachtel said.

Over the years, she has been an outspoken opponent of the scheduled widening and has argued that the council approved the project despite what she believed was overwhelming opposition to the plan.

"We're talking unresponsive government which, quite frankly, I could live with if they weren't wrecking the city," Long said. "We're angry and we intend to win this election. This is a serious thing. We're not playing around."

But some people are skeptical.

"They don't yet show an appreciation of understanding the complex set of problems confronting the city," said former council member Hal Silverstein, a CBC member. "Running the city -- that covers a broad spectrum of issues. It's a very tough job and a very complex process. If they think they can beat CBC on one or two issues, they're gravely in error."