Six years ago, at a time when [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] still synonymous with [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] in California, this pleasant little [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] 40 miles north of San Francisco launched a quiet revolution.

Under pressure from developers to maintain an [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] population growth rate that had reached 18 per cent a year, the city council instead imposed a one-year [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on residential construction. The next year, 1972, the council approved a five-year plan limiting the number of homes that could be built annually in Petaluma.

Today, limited growth is alive and well here. The city has survived a lawsuit by the economic slump and the severe California drought. The population growth rate is a steady 5 per cent, retail business is enjoying a mild boom and city officials are talking optimistically about continuing the limited-growth plan - called "growth management" - for seven more years.

Petaluma is an Indian word meaning "beautiful view." The Petaluma River, which bisects the town, is the northernmost tidal river of San Francisco Bay, and hay scows once traveled upriver from the bay bearing goods for railroad shipment to the Northwest. The town became a center for dairy and poultry production and for decades billed itself as "the egg basket of the world."

But in the 1960s, developers began to gobble up the flat and of Petaluma Valley lying east of the Highway 101 freeway, Putting up tract homes for the young professionals, government workers and businessmen who commuted to San Francisco, builders provided housing for a population that grew from 17,000 to 24,000. The city was hard-pressed to maintain water and sewage services, and schools went into double sessions.

"With the growth came a philosophy of them-and-us," recalled Frank B. Gray, the city's 32-year-old community development director and former planner." 'Us' was old Petaluma, went of the freeway. "Them was east of the freeway, where the new homes were. The new residents felt no tie to the city. We were in danger of losting our sense of community."

But, it as the "thems" who provided the pressure that led to change.

Enraged by the double sessions, which at one point threatened to become triple sessions, mothers of schoolchildren demanded action from city officials. As 68-year-old Mayor Helen Putnam put it, the protests of parents "struck a spark," that encourage the city to push ahead with growth limitation.

"Young families with young children were afraid they were in danger of losing what they came to Petaluma to find in the first place," Putnam said.

The growth-limitation plan infuriated the Construction Industry Association of Sonoma County. Aided by the National Homebuilders Association, the Sonoma County builders took Petaluma into federal court, claiming that the growth-limitation plan was an unconstitutional infringement of individual rights. The builders believed that the city ordinance was deficient and thought they could set a national precedent by overturning it.

Instead, it was Petaluma that set the precedent. The city lost the first round in federal district court but won in the appellate court, and the Supreme Court refused to review the case. Putnam and the council members who had supported growth management were re-elected by big margins.

Last year the townspeople also put on the council an east-sider who had pressed the fight against the developers. He is John Balshaw, a 42-year-old civil engineer who works for the Federal Highway Administration in San Francisco and moved to Petaluma eight years ago with his wife and two sons.

"If the developers had their way, they'd make Petaluma another San Jose," Balshaw said. "We'd have wall-to-wall development of those damned rowhouses."

Six years after the moratorium was imposed, Petaluma remains a highly desirable place in which to live. But the evidence is inconclusive on whether the current 5 per cent growth rate is attributable to growth management or to the economic slump that hit California soon after the building-limitation plan was adopted. The prevailing view is that both city policy and economic conditions contributed to the slowdown in residential construction.

Construction industry officials contend that Petaluma's policies have driven up the cost of housing, a claim city officials deny. A random sampling of real estate ads in the Petaluma newspaper and the newspapers of nearby communities show comparable price listings.

Three-bedroom homes and some four-bedroom ones in Petaluma are listed from $40,000 to $75,000, which is typical for this part of the San Francisco Bay.

Prices are only slightly lower in Rohnert Park, a heavily subdivided community to the north that has few of Petaluma's amenities and is beginning to feel population pressure on its schools.

What would seem to be incontestable is that the growth-management plan has contributed to the equality of housing in Petaluma and to continuing public awareness of the dangers of uncontrolled growth.

Petaluma's plan restricted new residential developments in the city to 500 units in any given year. It also required that they be divided geographically between the flat east side, where it is cheap to build, and the hillier west side, where construction is more difficult. The 500 units were split between single-family homes and multiple-residential developments, which scarcely existed in Petaluma five years ago.

Today, a fourth subdivisiion is nearing completion on the west side and an attractive apartment development, where units rent for $230 a month, has been completed on the east side. Some of the subdivisions have amenities unusual in California tracts, such as bike paths.

Balshaw believes that these amenities are the result of growth limitation. Under Petaluma's regulations, builders compete before a citizens' evaluation board chosen each year from a wide range of Petaluma citizens.

These citizens rate each proposed subdivision on criteria including architectural and site design, variety, open space, drainage and public facilities. The subdivider who gets the most points in this contest wins the building allocation, a procedure that encourages the builders to provide "extras" that will give them more points.

This competition is welcomed by some of the smaller builders, but is opposed by the organized construction industry, which continues to regard Petaluma's efforts to limit growth as dangerous and ill-founded.

"Petaluma set a national precedent," said Larry Smith, executive officer of the Construction Industry Association of Sonoma County. "The city's victory in the lawsuit has encouraged other cities to implement similar kinds of controls. We feel that this restricts the individuals right to travel, since America is a mobile society and people move to where the job are."

John Anderson, a Santa Rosa civil engineer who has worked on many subdivision projects in Petaluma, complains of "red tape" and a negative attitude that affects city departments.

"When slow-growth attitudes take effect, everything slows down," he said.

But Petalumans seem to feel that their growth is fast enough. Recently, the city council wiped out allocations for 800 homes that had been carried over from previous years. This action won editorial praise from the local Argus-Courier, which said that it would have been psychologically unwise for the city to have continued these allocations. However, the council did approve 108 units above the 500-home allocation. The additional units will be for elderly and low-income individuals.

Petaluma boasts an old-fashioned but highly developed downtown that includes some attractive riverfront development and stores that draw customers from miles around. Retail sales here grew from $43 million in 1970 to $60 million in 1975.

If Petaluma follows its general plan, as most city officials would like, the population would grow steadily to 77,000 in 1985, about a 6 per cent growth rate.

In addition to limiting the number of new homes that can be built each year, city officials have taken a number of other steps designed to enhance Petaluma's sense of community. A few years ago there was only one two-lane road across the freeway, which splits the city. Now the two-lane road has been widened to four lanes, and two other roads across the freeway have been built.

Petaluma also turned down a large shopping area on the east side out of fear that it would harm an existing shopping development in the same area and encourage urban sprawl.

"That was one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make," said City Manager Robert H. Meyer. "It cost Petaluma a lot of tax revenue."

The people who have promoted growth management seem an unlikely band of revolutionaries. Meyer came to Petaluma 15 years ago from a small town that had quadrupled in size and says he never would have gotten the Petaluma job if he had been talking about limiting growth. Mayor Putnam is a principal and first-grade teacher in the Two Rock School District, with 150 pupils. She is serving her fourth term as mayor.

Gray is a soft-spoken planner who has gained international recognition in growth management because of the Petaluma experience. Balshaw is a Rhode Islander who came to California by way of Pennsylvania.

Balshaw lives in a tract house, of the kind he doesn't want to see wall-to-wall in Petaluma Valley, and, for recreation, flies a small two-engine plane he owns with two other people. The plane takes off from a small ride-out airport a mile from his home.

Flying above the Petaluma Valley on a hot, dry, summer day recently, Balshaw talked about the quality of life in his adopted city and the pleasure of living there.

Flying above a gap in the coast range that lets in cool air from the ocean and keeps Petaluma nearly pollution-free, Balshaw gestured to Rohnert Park to the north and contrasted it with Petaluma.

"The builders will do whatever they can get away with," he said. "What really happened in Petaluma is that we said to to the developers, 'No more.'"