Just as prisons, ghettos and sin strips have their own notoriety, the complex of long, gray, weather-beaten buildings along the highway south of here has achieved a special renown.

Past the creek where people fill their jugs with drinking water, up the dusty road past the signs that warn visitors away, around the ditches filled with stagnant water and the gaping bins of garbage, this is the Westover migrant farm labor camp.

During the summer, as many as 700 itinerant laborers will stay here as they harvest the vegetables and melons from the fields of Somerset County. In migrant circles, all the way to Texas and California, Westover is regarded as a place to avoid.

It is the biggest and most infamous among dozens of rundown camps amid the fecund vegetable fields on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Maryland's Commisssion on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor is so exercised about Westover that it wants Gov. Harry Hughes to close the place.

The controversy is such that the state health department has taken over inspection functions from Somerset County. The commission has urged that unless major improvements are made or a replacement is erected -- which the growers say is not in the cards -- the camp should not operate next year.

"This place takes the cake," said Carol Budi, a veteran public health nurse who supervises a federally funded migrant health clinic on the edge of the camp. "I have never seen anything like the intensity of this -- the closeness of the people, the lack of sanitation, the violence, the sickness. I can't believe we haven't had a full-blown epidemic here this summer."

But perspectives vary.

Last June, Ed Long Jr., one of the growers who lodges his migrant workers here, told the commission that there is not a motel on Maryland's touristy Eastern Shore any better than Westover's newest building, a building that was used part of this year, then boarded up when its occupants left and not made available to other migrants.

The Westover camp differs from most other migrant facilities on the Eastern Shore only in its size. Some other camps on the shore house up to several hundred migrants, but Westover, with a capacity estimated at around 700, has on occasion had as many as 900 at one time, according to the state commission.

Westover is a sprawling complex of two dozen barracks-type buildings, separated by stretches of grass and dirt roads. Families live in single-room units without running water. Most units have refrigerators and small gas plates for cooking; sometimes doors, sometimes not. The single window is sometimes screened, sometimes not. Latrines offer stools without stalls, gang showers with no privacy, grime-encrusted lavatories.

State health inspectors have visited the place intermittently throughout this harvest season, checking for violations, but the chief inspections here, as at other camps, occur before the season. Once a farmer's camp meets the minimal requirements, the crews move in. The deterioration goes on apace and, migrant-aid workers report, inspectors are rarely seen again.

The Westover camp goes back to the New Deal years, when it was set up for the Civilian Conservation Corps. During World War II, it was a holding pen for German military prisoners, who worked the nearby fields. For about the last decade, the Somerset County Growers Association has housed its migrant workers here.

Conditions at Westover were discussed during a 1979 congressional hearing on the administration of federal laws regulating the labor contractors who hire migrants. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) is contemplating House subcommittee hearings next month on migrant housing problems, with a possibility of field hearings and site visits here and in Virginia and Delaware.

As depressing as Westover might be, it also has a less tangible side, a bleak spirit not unlike one might have found in the prison it once was. Admittance is routinely denied to outsiders, who encounter warning signs at the camp manager's office. Growers this summer ejected the on-camp clinic, saying they needed the space for migrants (who, it turned out, never occupied the building). The only recreational facilities are a few swings for the children and a pool table for workers in the commissary.

Labor crew leaders caution their workers to avoid the reporters who occasionally slip into camp. "I don't want no trouble," said Eugenio Herrera, a crew leader, when he found some of his Mexican-American field hands providing details on the camp. "If I don't open my mouth, mosquitoes can't get in."

The state commission's report on Westover was issued in May. As of last week, Somerset growers were contending they had had no official notice of the study -- even though farmer Dennett Butler, also a Somerset County commissioner, is a member of the governor's advisory group and Ed Long Jr. went before the state body in June to protest the findings.

"I am on the state commission, but the report has never been sent to us. A lot of things they put in there were judgment decisions, but I'd be the first to admit that some of the buildings need rehabilitation," Butler said. "The only part that is alarming to me is that I don't see how they can justify complete demolition. It boils down to a judgment thing. We feel we are complying. We passed all the state regulations this year, but our interpretation is that the regulations are too stringent at times."

Butler and Charles Bruce, president of the Somerset growers, said that farmers have been unable to obtain long-term Farmers Home Administration financing to replace the camp, in part because many of them are older men who do not want to commit their estates to potential debt on a rebuilding project.

A different view is taken by Sue Canning, an official of the Delmarva Rural Ministry, an ecumenical organization that contracts with the federal government to provide health care for migrants in the three states.

"Not one of these low-interest, long-term FmHA projects has been funded in the eastern migrant stream above Florida," she said. "If farmers sought change, it could be achieved. It is a bummer to go to Westover, particularly knowing we have laws on the books, and see a camp like that." NEXT: The service workers