In the rural stretches of southern Anne Arundel County, residents have long eyed the horizon with fear and greeted newcomers with suspicion, as if each new rooftop would herald the arrival of the Washington suburbs.

But on the frontiers of sprawl, few battles have taken shape in quite the manner that has upended the tiny, harborside village of Deale (population 1,950).

The battle over plans to build the town's first supermarket has prompted fistfights behind the local post office, and Wednesday night, nearly one quarter of the town's residents staged an angry rally in the gym of the elementary school.

The proposed Safeway is, in the eyes of many who turned out, nothing less than an assault on their way of life.

"People look at how beautiful it is here and worry about becoming the next Northern Virginia," said Amanda Spake, the leader of a local environmental group. "A project like this is seen as the leading edge of widespread commercial development."

Safeway officials said they have tried to reason with residents, noting that they held on to the 17-acre property for a decade before responding to market research that told them people want the convenience of shopping less than 15 miles away.

"No matter where you want to build, it represents change," said Greg Ten Eyck, a company spokesman based in Lanham. "There will always be some people against change."

What makes this battle different, besides the vigor with which it is being fought, is that it has been adopted by a large group of local merchants.

A supermarket would, in all likelihood, cut deeply into the profits of the local grocery, pharmacy, and, to a lesser extent, the florist. But the shop owners of Deale say they see the supermarket's arrival as more than just a fight for survival.

Ann Wolfe, president of the recently formed Alliance for Rural Business, argued that if local stores founder, residents will lose the special attention they receive in stores owned by people they know.

"This man," she said pointing to Dick Christopher, the manager of the local grocery, "has jumped in his car to drive bags of food home for an 80-year-old woman who couldn't carry them into her house."

"Stores in town donate food and flowers when someone dies," she continued. "That's not something you're going to get from some big chain."

Many residents of Deale have responded to this appeal. At Wednesday night's public forum, which was intended to focus on environmental concerns, speakers spoke out for their hometown shops, and more broadly, the small town's character.

"It's the ability to let your kids walk three or four blocks to the Bay without worrying," said resident Nick Anderson. "You can't put a price on that."

In the last 20 years, Deale's population has grown by little more than 100 people, according to the county's demographer. Although locals say that more residents now work in Washington or Baltimore, there are still a good number employed nearby.

The town is home to watermen who dredge the Chesapeake Bay for shellfish, and hosts a number of businesses that cater to marinas lining the coast. Most of the roads are barely two lanes wide, and at night, stars fill the sky.

"People know you by face," said Connie Hirschman, 55, a 15-year resident and local real estate agent. "The biggest problem I've had is if I pull off the road to make a phone call, people will stop and offer me help."

But not everyone attending the "rally against sprawl" spoke in harmony.

Robin Stanek faced down a chorus of boos when he declared he was tired of driving 12 miles to Edgewater, near Annapolis, to buy his breakfast cereal.

"I would like to have a market nearby with more things stocked on the shelves," he said. "I would like to have a pharmacy open after 6 o'clock."

The dispute has embroiled not just longtime residents. Many of the loudest voices against sprawl are Deale's newest citizens, just in from the Beltway. It's a fact not lost on Norman Broyles, 71, a retired elevator repairman, whose father moved the family to Deale in 1934.

"Nothing could destroy this land more than it's been destroyed already," Broyles said.

"If we had our way a few years back," he told the crowd, "none of you people would be here."

What will become of the Safeway proposal now hinges on the actions of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D). She must decide whether to issue the supermarket chain a waiver allowing it to build in a flood plain, and she faces pressure from supporters to honor her campaign pledge to keep sprawl in check.

Safeway officials said such waivers are routinely granted, and the company expects that won't change just because there has been a vocal public outcry.

Reached late yesterday, Owens said she had made no decision, adding only, "It's something I'll be considering very seriously."

CAPTION: Larry Atwood, a manager of Deale Food Rite, has worked there for 18 years. He does everything from greeting customers to bagging groceries.

CAPTION: Deale resident Ann Wolfe, 54, is president of the Alliance for Rural Business. Local stores offer residents special attention, she says.

CAPTION: Food Rite cashier Jennifer Dieux, right, of Shady Side, admires Charles Connors, 1, who came in with his mother, Melissa Brown, 19, of Churchton.