The most excitement this small (pop. 2,100) hill town has known since the memorable day in 1982 when, at one town meeting, it voted to sponsor both the nuclear freeze and a nuclear frigate named the USS Antrim, was the selectmen's meeting of July 16.

It started out in the selectmen's office, but so many people showed up -- almost a hundred -- they were forced upstairs to the Town Hall. The thing raged on for more than an hour; high words were heard. The argument is still going on, and no wonder.

The immediate topic, the construction of a hydroelectric project on the North Branch River, is of vivid moment to property abutters, fishermen and nature lovers. The larger question about the rights of people to their land is of eternal and passionate concern.

The would-be developers, Thurston Williams and his son-in- law, Mathew Yakovakis of Milford, a town a bit south, were taken aback by the size and hostility of the crowd, I am reliably informed.

Not a kind word did they hear in the course of the evening.

You might have thought that a man who proposed providing an alternate source of power in energy-conscious New Hampshire would be praised for his private enterprise and his public spirit.

Few states are more energy conscious. Granite State winters are long and cold, and many of its residents are seniors who suffer from them. In Antrim, during the winter of the oil shortage of 1973, the elderly widows who live on Summer Street closed off all the other rooms in the family homes and huddled around the kitchen stoves.

The shah of Iran is forgotten now, and so is the energy crisis that his misfortunes helped to generate. The bill that grew out of that crunch, however, is still with us, although it comes due in January, and it is that relic that critics of Thurston Williams say has impelled him to want to put ugly penstock pipe along five miles of their lovely little river.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 provides extraordinarily generous tax breaks for hydroelectric developers. The whole cost of the construction, for instance, can be written off.

At one point, when the trout fishermen were digging into him, Williams complained that he thought he was "doing something patriotic."

The feeling at the selectmen's meeting was that he was doing it for the money. He is a wealthy manufacturer, who, at 71, says he "still likes a challenge."

The river savers argue that the North Branch River is simply not the place to ease any energy crisis that Williams says could recur in this dangerous world.

It is, to, say, habitues of the Mississippi, hardly worthy of the name of river. It is not very wide -- 40 feet at best -- and not very deep -- ankle-to knee-deep except in its swimmin holes. But it has those clear brown depths that make fanatics of New Hampshire brook fanciers, and at several points it is spectacular.

By a small white bridge near the highway, it has a stretch of miniature waterworks worthy of Versailles. A natural staircase has been carved out of the huge boulders in midstream, and the water gurgles and chortles down the steps in a most fetching way, making that humming, murmuring sound that to the lover of brooks is incomparable.

Mariann Moery, who lives on its banks, sees the North Branch as a loser as a source of electricity. She notes that while it is a torrent in spring, it is a trickle in August and for three months in the winter, frozen solid. Williams promises to make it produce the equivalent of 4,500 gallons of oil per year.

Moery and her husband, transplanted New Yorkers, are deeply engaged in the dam fight. So are the Hermans, Susan and Richard, who run the Interlocken Center for Experiential Education, an international camp, and own a dam that Williams covets. Theirs is made of boulders pushed together. His would be of concrete.

The anti-development leader is Keith Boatright, a 48-year-old retired Navy commander, who was born in North Dakota.

Antrim's town counsel, Lloyd Henderson, notes that the cast of characters makes for an interesting reversal. Usually it is the natives who are protecting their land from foreign invaders. This time, the outsiders are trying to repel an aggressive native.

Williams, in a telephone interview, targeted Boatright, who is building his river house by hand, as the villain of the piece. Boatright, according to Williams, "just does not wish to be disturbed, no matter what the good to the public might be."

Boatright calls Williams "a tax farmer."

The townspeople, who, except for property owners and fishermen, are not emotionally involved, are sitting back to watch the contest.

It will be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will or will not accept Williams' application for a license.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.