When Pierre L'Enfant designed the nation's capital 200 years ago, he envisioned Washington as a low-profile city flanked by the gently rising hills of what is now called the Arlington ridge.

Today that ridge has been broken by a dense cluster of nearly 30 high-rise office buildings -- a Manhattan-like development that has brought pride to Virginia officials, but now has become the focus of an increasingly emotional conflict.

At issue are deeply held beliefs that have traditionally separated Virginians from others in the Washington area: the rights of private developers, the sovereighnty of local government and the cherished belief that the Washington skyline is -- like the monuments that make it unique -- sacred.

Angered by the realization that Arlington County officials have approved plans for four more hugh-rise buildings that will tower well above the District's 13-story limit and Arlington's own 12-story limit, some top federal officials are outraged.

The buildings will have "a devastating impact on the skyline of the nation's capital," complained Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, who has directed his lawyers to consider suing to block the buildings.

"In effect, 175 years of restraint is being cashed in on by three developers," charges J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery and chairman of the Federal Commission of Fine Arts. "These buildings will ruin one of the most beautiful cities in the world."

Arlington officials dispute Brown's fears, "Height as such is not one of my major concerns," said Arlington Board Chairman John W. Purdy. "I don't basically agree with the argument that the buildings have any impact on Washington. People don't get up on the Capitol steps at look at Rosslyn."

But Brown and others are troubled by Arlington plans to allow four new high-rise buildings. The buildings at issue are the twin 29-story Arland Towers, which would stand on a bluff overlooking Washington's Kennedy Center; the 22-story Rosslyn Center; and a 24-story mirrored glass building on N. 17th Street.

The buildings are dramatic proof, Arlington County officials say, that their private financial redevelopment of what was once an embarrassing jumble of lumber yards, pawn shops and small stores on the Potomac River is paying off.

What, if anything, the federal officials can do to stop the new buildings is uncertain. The buildings were in some instances approved years ago and construction on most is well under way.

Arlington officials have brushed aside federal objections, saying there is nothing under Virginia law they could do now to halt the buildings -- if they wanted to. "Besides," said one County Board member, "I'm not exactly crazy about our view of the Georgetown waterfront," itself a jumble of decaying wharfs, old, vacant factories and trash.

"There is only one exception to the gorgeous band of green along the bank of the Potomac and this is Rosslyn, which has been bad enough," says Brown of the Fine Arts Commission. "The one saving grace is that [until now] Rosslyn is blocked from the Capitol and monuments by trees."

"Not one member of the federal establishment has come to see us ever," counters Washington developer Theodore B. Gould, whose 24-story-mirrored glass building was planned more than a year ago. "Cecil Andrus is not the secretary of the interior for Virginia."

"It's a question of what is nice in the skyline," Gould says angrily. "His [Andrus'] taste is that he prefers trees and my taste is that this building is an enhancement to the skyline. He has vilified me and he had the opportunity to come see us earlier."

Many Arlington officials and the developers express anger and bewilderment at the recent attention, which they characterize as "high-handed meddling." Many of them question the right of federal officials to cross the Potomac and intervene in Arlington affairs, particularly after decisions, of which they say the officials were officially informed, have been made.

Federal officials reply that they were not given adequate notice of the buildings' impact on the skyline. It was an unnamed Arlington resident's telephone call this summer that sparked their interest, they say.

The officials responsible for transforming Rosslyn into one of the area's hottest commercial properties admit they make mistakes. The new buildings, they say, are in fact an attempt to make up for the area's lack o trees, parks and sidewalks by requiring developers to provide them in exchange for greater height.

"We were all working together, the developers and the county staff," recalled former County Board chairman Leo Urbanske, citing the 1962 start of Rosslyn redevelopment. "After that things just went wild and everybody was happy."

"Rosslyn has become part of downtown," said multi-millionaire Rosslyn developer Marvin Weissberg. "With the Metro subway there's been a whole new rebirth." Other developers say the area has become an extension of Washington's Connecticut Avenue and K Street. They cite the advantage of its easy access to downtown, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and National Airport via the subway.

Sixteen years ago when newly hired county planning director Richard E. Arms, several County Board members and area developers including the Pomponio brothers and Stanley Westreich sat down to draw up a master plan, Rosslyn was different. Westreich is the developer of the twin 29-story Arland Towers complex that will rise 380 feet above the river.

"Rosslyn was a major entrance to the state and a real embarrassment to Arlington," Arms recalled. "A number of factors just seemed to meld together." Chief among them was the tremendous pressure for office space close to downtown Washington and Arlington's need for a tax base.

In Virginia property taxes provide the bulk of local government funds, creating a built-in incentive for more development in every community in the state.

"A lot of developers came over to Rosslyn to speculate," Urbanske recalled, "even though the address wasn't as good as downtown. Land was just so much cheaper and Rosslyn was really designed for spot zoning. The height limit got to be kind of a joke."

Land costs in Rosslyn in the early '60s, according to Urbanske were about $10 per square foot that compared to $75 in the District "and there you had to tear down a building before you could build another one," he said.

Variances and a height limit that was raised from seven to 12 stories in 1962 were inducements for developers, Arms recalled. In turn developers agreed to provide millions of dollars to construct streets and walkways. Those gifts enabled Rosslyn, which now annually grosses $5 million in county tax revenue to be built at a total public expenditure of $9 million.

"We were quite conscious of the [13-story] height limit in the District," Arms said. "But that was countermanded by various market pressures. The [county] board was thinking about tax revenue and wanted to see what private enterprise could do. The Metro subway was just fundamental to the whole thing. The board wanted high-density development around the future station."

County records show that of the 30 office buildings erected since 1962, more than one-third received height variances by the County Board.

"The public benefits the developers agreed to provide were just so enormous," deputy planning director Thomas C. Parker said. "Height is not necessarily unattractive and I think history will bear us out. You can get a dumpier, squattier building at 12 stories or a nice building at a more reasonable height."

Stanley Zupnik of Chevy Chase, developer of the 22-story Rosslyn Center building under construction next to the Metro station, said he spent $1 million to buy the land now occupied by the station and then donated it to the county in exchange for permission to build the tall building.

Scheduled for completion next year, Rosslyn Center is the subject to an aggressive national marketing campaign that advertises it as '"Washington' tallest office building... with landmark views [of the monuments]."

"The county attorney told us we can't reconsider our approval," said Dorothy T. Grotos, who will become County Board chairman next month. Grotos said she regretted approving the Rosslyn buildings.

"I think the county has given developers more than we've gotten," she said, "but I think the federal officials should have talked to us a lot sooner. They have to accept some of the blame. We'll just have to do better next time."