The Jefferson Island Club, whose founders included Franklin D. Roosevelt and a virtual who's who of New Deal-era Congressional Democrats, has been both washing away into the Potomac and sinking in a sea of red ink.

But yesterday, the club and its rustic clubhouse on a 40-acre island in St. Mary's County, were bailed out by the State of Maryland.

The state Board of Public Works voted without discussion or dissent to give the club a four-year deferral on a half-million dollars in state erosion-control loans.

In asking for the deferral, club officials said they could not afford to pay back the $500,000 balance on nearly $650,000 in interest-free state loans the club has received since 1975.

The club, which was established in 1931 to provide a place of relaxation where Democrats could "assemble, discuss and promote Jeffersonian philosophies," is more bipartisan today. But in some quarters, its partisan image lingers.

"It was a setup, as far as I'm concerned," said Carl M. Loffler, Jr., the Republican president of the St. Mary's County commissioners. The county guaranteed the state loans to the club.

Loffler and the one other Republican commissioner lost, 3 to 2, in a July 5 vote that went strictly along party lines.

Loffler said the commissioners were shown no documentation of the club's financial needs or plans before the vote. County administrator Edward Cox said the commissioners were asked only to approve the concept of loan deferment. He said they would see documentation before ratifying the agreement, after the state public works board vote.

"Unfortunately," Loffler said, the loan deferral "might be legitimate, but obviously it's political. Jefferson Island is a political haven, obviously of interest to the Democrats."

The state public works board consists of three Democrats, including Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who said the interest-free loans, intended to preserve the vanishing shorelines of the bay and its tributaries, are strictly nonpartisan.

"We do it for Democrats, Republicans, Independents," Goldstein said. "They ought to be given credit for preserving that island. Otherwise, it would wash away." Some $15.6 million is owed the state on 605 outstanding loans under the program, which began in 1970.

Jefferson Island, at the mouth of the Wicomico River, a Potomac tributary, once was more than four times its current size, according to Jefferson Glassie Jr., the club's executive vice president. "The clubhouse almost fell into the drink in the mid-1950s," he said.

The club had 35 charter members, with Arkansas Sen. Joseph T. Robinson its first chairman of the board. It was located then on one of the Poplar Islands in the Chesapeake Bay off the Eastern Shore. The founders called their club a "shrine for Democrats."

After the clubhouse burned down in 1946, the club purchased St. Catherine's Island in the Potomac, renamed it Jefferson Island and continued to function. But in recent years, the club has been in decline.

Glassie, 41, said membership was down to 30 two years ago and now numbers around 50. He said it needs 75 members "to make our basic budget" of $100,000.

The members are lawyers like Glassie himself, he said, lobbyists and trade association executives. There is also an 11-member board of congressional advisers, four of whom are Republicans.

Annual events at the island include a crab feast at the end of July and an oyster roast in the fall. Washington-based club events include a Capitol Hill reception and citizen of the year banquet.

There's a $1,000 initiation fee, and members pay $1,500 a year, or $750 if they're less than 35 years old.

In a June 18 letter to Goldstein seeking the deferrals, Glassie invoked the memory of FDR and wrote: "The Island has suffered the effects of erosion for a long time. With the help of the state, the Club has built four seawalls since 1976 covering several thousand feet of shoreline."

At a time when club membership was shrinking, members had to cough up $100,000 in matching funds for the last of three state loans.

The cost of carrying the loans has been "staggering," Glassie said in the letter to Goldstein, and the annual payments of $25,000 are now in arrears.

"The costs of the seawalls," the club officer wrote, "may force the Club into bankruptcy and the Island to be sold, probably for less than the seawall debt."

Under the deferral, the club would pay the state 5 percent in interest and its payment schedule would be accelerated after the moratorium so that the full amounts would still be paid off in 25 years.