Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes yesterday ordered a 20-day halt on all withdrawals from troubled Community Savings & Loan Association of Bethesda.

The governor acted at the request of Community President Clayton McCuistion, who wrote Hughes yesterday citing "heavy withdrawals due in large part to recent publicity surrounding the federal requirement that Community divest" its $1.5 billion real estate subsidiary.

Community has been told by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board that it cannot qualify for federal deposit insurance until it disposes of Equity Programs Investment Corp. (EPIC), a Virginia real estate investment company owned by Community.

EPIC disclosed on Friday that it is unable to pay some of its debts, setting off heavy withdrawals at all six Community branches in the Washington suburbs over the weekend and again yesterday.

Even though withdrawals from Community were already limited by state order to $1,000 per month from most accounts, depositors continued to drain away as much cash as possible, prompting Hughes to use his emergency powers to halt all withdrawals. The governor, in his executive order, said, "An emergency exists with respect to Community Savings & Loan Association in that the welfare of the depositors is threatened by an actual or impending impairment of liquidity."

Community is one of the largest Maryland savings and loans that has not yet received either conditional or final approval for federal deposit insurance, which all state S&Ls are required to get by year-end.

Community's finances began to unravel last Wednesday when McCuistion disclosed that federal regulators were pressing for the sale of the real estate venture. Two days later, he announced that EPIC was delinquent on some payments due on about $1 billion in mortgage-backed securities.

In his letter to the governor, McCuistion said Community is "actively pursuing negotiations with a number of interested parties" to sell EPIC. "These negotiations cannot succeed in an atmosphere of public panic, which is the natural result of continuing media coverage of lines at our branches," he said.

It could not be learned last night how much money has been withdrawn from the thrift, which had 28,600 accounts and assets of $443 million at the end of July.

Norm Silverstein, spokesman for the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, the state agency insuring deposits up to $100,000 at institutions that have not obtained federal insurance, said: "We have no evidence that this problem has spilled over to any other savings and loan, nor should it. EPIC is a situation that is unique."

Depositors in lines at community yesterday said they understood that the state agency was standing behind Community, but intended to withdraw their money anyway.

Debra Cloud, 24, an X-ray technician from Bowie, said she opened her $10,500 account at Community in June. Yesterday, she closed it. (Deposits made after Hughes imposed the limit on withdrawals last spring -- known as "new money" -- are exempt from the $1,000 withdrawal limit regulation.) "I'm going to go put it in something that's federally insured," she said.

Charles Meehan, 66, of Bowie, said he is confident that the new Maryland Deposit Insurance Corp. is protecting his money adequately. But he still came to a Community Savings & Loan branch yesterday to withdraw as much of his funds as possible. "We've been scared by the television [reports] and the media," he said. "My wife more than me."

Ken Smith, 21, of Crofton, stood in line as well, but he said he was just there to cash his paycheck, not to close the account he has had there since 1978. "Harry Hughes has this covered by the MDIC," Smith said. "It's kinda dumb to yank all your money out when all you'll do is make it more unstable. If you can't trust in the full faith and credit of the state of Maryland, who can you trust?"

The order issued by Hughes generally prohibits all withdrawals from all accounts. It allows Community to pay out funds for construction and real estate loans if such payments "will protect or enhance the value" of the association's assets.

The S&L's Bethesda office ran out of cash after a morning rush of withdrawals and had to give depositors checks until two armored cars arrived with more cash about 2 p.m.

Community's difficulties involved a group of companies, most of them based in Falls Church, which use the name EPIC.

The largest of these, Equity Programs Investment Corp., is a subsidiary of Community, which in turn is owned by EPIC Holdings Ltd., a Delaware corporation, whose ownership could not be determined yesterday.

Equity Programs organizes and manages a large number of limited partnerships that invest in single-family homes. EPIC partnerships own 20,000 homes across the nation, worth $1.5 billion, according to company figures.

EPIC began a decade ago by buying model homes from builders and leasing the homes back to the builders. Later, it branched out into buying and renting other newly built homes. EPIC locates the homes, then arranges for them to be purchased by a group of investors who are allowed to claim tax deductions for depreciation, other expenses and mortgage interest. Investors in the deals get large tax deductions up front and are supposed to get their initial investment back when the houses are sold at a profit.

Mortgage loans for the partners to buy the houses were arranged through a related company, EPIC Mortgage, according to sources familiar with the company's operations. EPIC Mortgage, a mortgage banking company, would either sell these loans directly to investors -- often savings and loan associations -- or combine a group of mortgages into what's known as a pool and issue to investors securities based on the mortgages.

Payments to holders of EPIC's mortgage-backed securities are channeled through the National Bank of Washington and First National Bank of Maryland.

NBW processes payments on mortgages worth $408 million for 59 different holders, most of them savings associations, an NBW official said. First National handles mortgages worth $621 million for 51 different participants.

In both cases, the banks collect money from EPIC Mortgage Inc., which receives the mortgage payments from the limited partnerships. The banks in turn forward the money -- interest and principal -- to the investors who hold the mortgage securities.

According to an NBW official, the bank became aware of EPIC's problems early last week after EPIC failed to meet a monthly payment of about $1.5 million due Aug. 10. When the bank received only one $150,000 payment on the loans, a bank official checked with EPIC and was told there was a computer problem, the NBW official said.

The following day -- last Tuesday -- Robert N. Kemp, president of EPIC Mortgage, called to say his company wouldn't make the payment, the NBW officials said. Another $2.5 million to $3 million that was due Aug. 15 for disbursement on Aug. 20 and 23 also has not been paid, the NBW source said. Payments to First National are not due until Aug. 25.

Officials from both banks met with EPIC officials yesterday at NBW's request, to discuss if and when they will be paid.

Last week, EPIC also notified the Federal National Mortgage Association that it would not pay any of the money due on the $115 million of mortgages it services for Fannie Mae, President Mark J. Riedy said. Riedy said Leonard Meltz Jr., president of Community Financial Services Inc., called him to give "some song and dance" about how EPIC planned to " 'conserve cash and put in suspended animation' " payments to Fannie Mae because of FHLBB's order to divest EPIC.

Riedy said EPIC's move violated its contract with Fannie Mae. "We are doing everything we can to make sure we will get our payment," he said.

According to both banks, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) is by far the largest holder of EPIC's mortgage-backed securities, and PSFS officials yesterday acknowledged that the institition holds about $215 million of them.

A PSFS official said that EPIC pays PSFS about $2 million a month. Most of that money is due on Aug. 26. EPIC failed to meet the $137,500 payment due earlier this month on an $11.5 million loan.