Far from the redwoods, sheer cliffs and roaring surf that make it one of the country's scenic wonders, the Bug Sur coast of California is caught in a political riptide here on the Potomac.

If the Big Sur area is unique, and most people consider it so, the fierce debate over its future is almost as unusual.

A House-passed bill to help protect the coastal strip from development has split the California congressional delegation, set resident against resident and conservationist against conservationist, and made "bad guys" hard to identify.

The debate revolves around one of the hardist perennials in American politics: If the Big Sur residents take needed money to help protect their turf, will they also end up subject to unwanted federal controls?

For years, the rugged Big Sur has attracted a special sort of resident -- naturalists, ranchers, artists, writers, the wealthy, people who care more about their habitat than making an extra dollar from it.

Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), the former semantics professor, has called it "a crazy place" whose residents tend to be "hippies" that he said "wouldn't have a McDonald's within 500 miles."

Whatever, they have labored vigorously to prevent commercialization of their esthetic preserve, which, even though private, is traversed by California's famous Rte. 1 and attracts nearly three million visitors a year.

Traffic is intensified by the lure of the late William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate, at the lower end of the Big Sur area; by parks and the artistic communities of Carmel and Monterey, along the Pacific below San Francisco.

But the fight over the future of Big Sur is not just a neighborhood squabble. The Los Angeles Times, among other major California dailies, editorializing for federal protection, called Big Sur "a state and national treasure."

There is no debate over Big Sur's uniqueness. The argument is over whether locals have the will and resources to keep the area free of over-development and insults to the eye.

When the Senate returns from recess next month, it is expected to take up House-passed legislation that would create a new kind of mechanism to save the vistas and protect Big Sur from hot-dog stands and condominiums.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), would pave the way for federal money to be used in preventing new development but allow locals to keep their land and play a major role in the management decisions.

Panetta's bill, with White House support, is being pushed by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the majority whip, who is giving it personal attention.

The energy and Natural Resources Committee is considering the Panetta bill. But if it fails to move, the same measure -- passed a second time by the House as an amendment to another bill -- awaits full Senate action.

Hayakawa thinks the best approach is to pass no bill and keep the federal government and its money away from Big Sur. He prevented the second bill from being called to a Senate vote just before the recess.

Some residents of Big Sur think that is just fine. Some others think it is wrong-headed. Each side is represented by sophisticated committees that produce extensive petitions, brochures and kits explaining their views.

Caught in the middle is their congressman, Panetta, who says his aim is to keep Big Sur the way everyone wants to keep it, but provide federal money to do the job.

Aligned with Panetta is the Big Sur Foundation, whose best-known member is Big Sur resident Ansel Adams, the photographer. Adams originally wanted most of the 75 miles or so of Big Sur coast put into a federal park, and Cranston agreed, but both now support the Panetta middle-ground.

Opposing them are Friends of the Big Sur, the Big Sur Coalition and a group called the SURvival Alliance, which fear a "federalization" of the area and its gradual conversion into a gigantic playground for the masses.

"Our premise," said James Josoff, chairman of the Friends, "is that the overdevelopment everyone fears will come with federalizion . . . Commerical firms at both ends of the area already have an eye on building staging and recreation areas."

About 90,000 of the roughly 160,000 acres in the Big Sur area already are state or federally owned, as national forest, wilderness and parks. The rest is in private hands.

But growing tourist and residential development trends are seen by Panetta and others as threats to the area's historic nature. Tourism is expected to double to six million visitors annually by the year 2000.

California, meanwhile, has a coastal protection law to acquire scenic easements and prevent overdevelopment of the most attractive areas. The main problem with the plan is that it covers a coastline more than 1,000 miles long and does not have enough money to do the job.

Enter Leon Panetta. His bill would provide the money -- up to $30 million for easements and management programs -- to help enforce the state plan in a zone about 75 miles long and five miles wide.

It would also mean a larger federal role in the lives of a lot of independent-minded residents of Big Sur. Panetta's idea is to call in the federal money, but let the locals guide the decision-making, keep their land and control the intrusions.

Even that doesn't get it for some. "Locally, this bill is known as 'Panetta's Pave 'n' Save,'" said Paula Walling of the SURvival Alliance.

Panetta's answer: "In the end we are talking about a national treasure, a very unique area. We can wait for the development to occur and then act. Or we can take these steps now. The bill stresses that we are trying to protect Big Sur as it is."