Vermont, more than most states, has a self-image. Maple syrup, weathered barns in fields of snow, village greens, old towns, stone walls, farms, not too many people . . .

And certainly not shopping malls.

That's perhaps why what elsewhere would be a zoning battle fought by lawyers has been transformed here into an extraordinary argument over esthetics and the quality of life.

A shopping mall - a 500,000 square-foot reminder of the way the rest of America has used it resources over the last two decades - has been proposed for a site eight miles outside Burlington, which with 38,000 people is the largest city in Vermont and one of the fastest growing in the United States.

"This," says architect Robert Burley, "is a turning point.

"If this mall goes ahead there'll be more strip shopping centers and more malls. It will change everyone's values and self-image."

City after city across the United States has been ringed by shopping malls. Urban affairs expert George Sternleib calls them the hottest development game of this era: "Developers, given money, will blacktop the world."

"One wonders why the questions Vermont is asking haven't been posed before," Sternleib says. There is no tradition here of regional as opposed to local planning, but Vermont has an environmental law that many believe empowers it to consider a development's impact on a region and on its esthetic as well as its business environment.

Architect Burley says the state "is associated with a sort of straightforwardness, with a noncorporate image and with honest types of buildings" in which "truth is beauty."

The 500,000 square feet of retail space that Pyramid Co. plans for the town of Williston would be as important esthetically as any street in the state, says the architect.

It would have a "Cafe Square" with restaurants ranging from fast food to French cuisine built to resemble an 1890s village - all indoors like a stage set.

No one questions that the mall would replace a lot of the shops in nearby small towns and that many merchants would leave downtown Burlington to relocate there.

The mall would have almost exactly as much shopping space the city of Burlington.

"We're afraid that the shopping mall would create a new, indoor society. It's not a question of competition with Burlington, it's a question of destruction," says Francis X. Murray, the lawyer Burlington has hired to fight Pyramid.

Vermonters, replies Pyramid partner Donald Moore, "believe in the moat theory. They say, I've moved in, so now I'll pull up the drawbridge and won't let anybody else in."

Market research shows that about 230,000 people in the region would be potential mall shoppers. Moore calls the area "a very good market," noting that Burlington has no full-line department stores and some residents of the region go as far as Boston to shop. J. C. Penney has already made clear that it would move to the mall. About 1,000 jobs would be created by the mall, Moore says, roughly half of them full-time.

"Every thing's a matter of scale. This seems big here, but it's small compared to malls around big cities," says Moore, whose company has built 26 malls, all in New York State. (Tysons Corner in Virginia is three times the size of the mall Moore proposes.)

Public testimony has been roughly evenly divided, according to both sides. No one questions that Pyramid is well-qualified to do the construction nor that it is making every effort to comply with Vermont's environmental law. It has won local zoning approval. Were it not for the arguments of regional impact and esthetics, Pyramid would face no obstacle to its plans to break ground with the first warm weather in April.

Burley, says esthetics has always been a secondary consideration - if it has been considered at all - in environmental law. Some foes of bill-boards used to argue not that they altered the highway scenery but that robbers could hide behind them.

"If Vermonters accept more and more of these corporate packages, then the packages become part of our image," Burley says. He argues that Vermont's image of small communities with small shops around village greens is an economic as well as spiritual asset. People visit Vermont because it looks different - not because it has shopping malls.

"If the people want the image to change, then they should go ahead," he says. "I just want people to think about these questions before we adopt a nationwide way of doing things and just join in with progress."

On the economic side, Burlington would be the loser to Pyramid. Merchants could survive by transplanting their shops to the mall, but the city's urban renewal program - a federally funded effort to keep center city vibrant - would be set back.

"The cumulative impact of all these malls probably takes more jobs out of cities than all the federal CETA money puts in," Sternleib says, referring to the Labor Department's Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration.

"Everyone sees what malls do to the cities. It's no secret," says lawyer Murray.

A district environmental board has been holding hearings on Pyramid's plans in the Williston school house one day a week since July. Its decision is expected in March.

If Pyramid wins it will have only one remaining problem - a name. Moore says the project was going to be Pyramid Mall but a Burlington head shop filed for use of that name, so the company will think of something else. "After all this controversy," he remarks, "everybody will know where we are no matter what we call it."