In May 1981, J. Albert Weinberg and his three co-owners arranged what they called a "very favorable" deal to sell the old Warner Theatre and Office Building, at 13th and E Sts. NW.

But there was a small problem.

The four didn't know that an application had been filed the month before by Don't Tear It Down, a private preservation group, with the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital to designate their property as an historic landmark.

Almost two years later, the joint committee still has made no decision. But the buyers have: They backed out last May in the face of what the owners contend is the lengthy, intimidating and expensive landmark preservation procedure in the District.

Under the District of Columbia's historic preservation law, a building or structure designated as an historic landmark cannot be demolished or its exterior or site altered without a permit from the District government. The law--one of the toughest in the country--also treats a building that is potentially a landmark the same way. While an application to designate a building a landmark is pending before the joint committee, an owner cannot tear it down or alter its exterior without a District permit.

The Warner is one of 16 applications pending before the joint committee for the designation of new historic landmarks or new or expanded historic districts; 2 of the 16 were filed by the owners of the potential landmarks, 6 were filed by Don't Tear It Down, and the remaining were filed by others, mostly citizens groups.

Because of the restrictions on potential alterations to landmarks, a designation can have a significant economic impact on the owners of the building, or on owners of properties within designated historic districts. As a result, some owners of buildings strongly oppose potential designations.

The city's law allowing third parties to seek landmark status for others' buildings and placing a moratorium on changes to them while applications are pending is designed to halt the possible destruction of a building that adds to the city's historic, aesthetic and cultural heritage. Proponents of the law say that, without those built-in protections, many of these buildings would be altered or destroyed by their owners because of the economics of the situation.

The Warner's owners, for instance, contend that the landmark process has cost them $6.5 million, the difference between what they could have gotten for the building before, and what they estimate they can get for it if it's designated as a landmark, with its alterations restricted and demolition chances unlikely.

Weinberg and the Warner's other owners--South Trimble III, Julius Goldstein and Simon E. Eichberg--argued at a hearing before the joint committee in November that the 1924 building is not significant architecturally or historically, and wouldn't be judged a landmark if the city's preservation panel had any comparative standards to use as criteria in designating landmarks. They also complained that the old movie theater, the sole survivor of that era's downtown movie palaces, is "as obsolete as a buggy whip factory." While too big to be used for movies today, the theater's small stage dimensions, absence of a significant west wing and limited backstage have restricted the size and nature of live shows that can be put on, they said.

Although the owners of the Warner don't want their building designated a landmark, there are some owners who do. The owners of the Mayflower Hotel, at 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW, which is in the midst of an extensive restoration, are seeking the upgrading of its landmark status and nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government's official list of historic properties worthy of preservation.

Listing in the national register can provide some significant benefits, including favorable tax treatment for the preservation of historic buildings and structures. This includes a 25 percent investment tax credit for rehabilitation and a 15-year accelerated depreciation of renovation expenses. Historic buildings with certified rehabilitations are eligible for additional tax savings.

The joint committee has come under fire in recent years for the length of time it takes to decide on landmark applications; nine of the 16 applications pending today were filed in 1981. Last summer, they were embarrassed to find that a house on 10th Street, once lived in by "Boss" Shepherd, was demolished legally despite the efforts of a Logan Circle citizens group to save it because the application didn't get a timely hearing.

If the owner asks for a permit to demolish or alter the building, however, the landmark application is put on a fast track. The joint committee must act on the overall designation application within 90 days of being told a permit application has been filed; the city must act on the permit application within 120 days.

Members of the committee have admitted that there are problems, but the panel has been plagued by an increasing workload and reduced membership. Three of the 13 committee seats are vacant. Of the 10 sitting members, 4, including chairman J. Ernest Harper, are serving in expired terms and one of the 4 no longer is living in Washington. Members whose terms are expired may sit on the committee until replaced.

The joint committee's members are appointed by the mayor of the District of Columbia, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Commission of Fine Arts but approved by all three, according to joint committee staff. No new members have been approved recently, however, and Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. reportedly has decided to create a local historical preservation review board to replace the joint committee.

An additional problem is that all the members of the joint committee are professionals with full-time jobs. As a result, there has been difficulty getting a quorum for hearings and deliberations. However, the members agreed at their last meeting to amend the rules so that a majority of the 10-member panel--or six--no longer will be required for a quorum for a hearing. Now, three or more must be present at hearings. A majority will be required for a decision-making meeting, with four votes required for a decision.

The joint committee appears to be in the process of catching up. A hearing on an expansion of the boundaries of the Dupont Circle Historic District is scheduled for next week. Separate applications filed for landmark designations of Walsh Stables at 1511 22nd St. NW and for buildings from 2000 to 2008 17th St. NW are included within the proposed boundaries and won't be scheduled for separate hearings unless the district isn't expanded.

Another application not set for hearing would create a new Mount Pleasant Historic District.

Hearings scheduled before the joint committee next month will consider applications for desig- nations of the interior of the entrance pavilion of the already designated Wyoming Apartments at 2022 Columbia Rd. NW, C&P Telephone Co. buildings at 722 and 730 12th St. NW, and the Homer Building at 601 13th St. NW. Also scheduled for hearing next month is a petition filed by an ANC to designate as a landmark Twin Oaks, a summer house at 3225 Woodley Rd. NW built in 1888. The property, owned now by the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, the representative of the Republic of China (Taiwan), was used as the Embassy of the Republic of China from the early 1940s through 1978.

Other applications pending before the joint committee but not scheduled for hearing yet are:

* The Masonic Temple (Town Theatre) at 801 13th St. NW

* The Tivoli Theater, owned by the District of Columbia, 3301-3325 14th St. NW at Park Rd.

* The west side of the 700 block of 7th St. NW, a property belived by the joint committee to be included in the already designated downtown historic district.

* The Old Georgetown Incinerator at 31st and K Sts. NW

* Hecht Co. buildings at 7th and F Sts. NW.

* Amendment of the already designated Monroe House at 2015 I St. NW to include the adjacent 1017 I St.

* Evans-Tibbs House, 1910 Vermont Ave. NW.