Giant billboards that dwarf passing pedestrians and motorists have been erected along several District of Columbia thoroughfares, the most recent of only a handful to go up in Washington in more than 50 years.

Their appearance has brought an outcry from the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, a national organization dedicated to curbing the "visual pollution" they say billboards create along streets and highways.

It is a "national outrage" that the capital could be "blighted" by billboards, said Edward T. McMahon, a Georgetown University law school professor and a director of the coalition.

Two signs have been erected by Rollins Outdoor Advertising Inc. at the intersection of Florida and New York Aves. NE, and others went up at Third and M Sts. NE. They are permitted under regulations that also could allow big signs in many other sections of the city.

For five decades, most D.C. officials and civic leaders believed D.C. regulations prohibited billboards. But events set in motion when Rollins challenged the city's interpretation of its billboard rules in 1978 resulted in regulations being issued in November 1980 permitting the giant signs in industrially zoned areas, which are dotted throughout much of Washington, particularly in the Northeast.

Rollins applied for three sign permits in June 1981 and was granted two, although city officials are uncertain whether the billboards ever were erected. Last March, the outdoor advertising company was granted permits for billboards at four Northeast addresses and has erected them. No other applications for billboard permits have been received since the 1980 regulations became effective, according to Zoning Administrator James J. Fahey.

Although the rules have been in force for four years, some city leaders apparently still believe new billboards can be barred. When asked about the presence of billboards, City Administrator Thomas Downs said, "I didn't know we had any."

The Board of Appeals and Review ruled in 1978 that Rollins was correct in saying that city regulations permitted -- and, in some circumstances, required -- it to grant requests for billboard permits.

Subsequently, Assistant Corporation Counsel George F. Riseling said the company's argument was "legally supportable." In a March 1979 memo to Robert Moore, then the city's director of housing and community development, Riseling wrote that, if D.C. officials wanted to prohibit all billboards in Washington, they should ask the City Council to pass legislation.

The council has not passed such legislation and, according to several city officials, none apparently has been proposed.

Many American cities and towns have banned or severely restricted erection of new billboards, according to the Coalition for Scenic Beauty. Among them is Fairfax County, where regulations are so restrictive that no billboards have gone up since the rules were enacted in 1978. Prince George's County allows billboards in industrial zones, and on vacant land that is commercially zoned if the County Council gives permission. Montgomery County restricts billboards to industrial areas and to vacant land that is zoned for commercial development.

Congress, which then largely governed the city, passed legislation in 1931 authorizing the District of Columbia Board of Commissioners to regulate billboards. City officials then passed rules that they believed would prohibit erection of billboards, but allowed more than 1,100 signs then dotting the city to remain, according to Fahey. By Jan. 1, 1961, when the 1931 regulations were incorporated into a new city building code, the billboard population had fallen to 125, he said.

The number continued to dwindle, with no new signs going up or being proposed, until 1977, when Rollins asked permission to erect two billboards at the intersection of Ninth and V Sts. NW, according to records of the Board of Appeals and Review and the D.C. Court of Appeals, where Rollins took its case after the Department of Housing and Community Development declined to issue the permits.

When Rollins appealed the agency's rejection of its applications to the Board of Appeals and Review, a company representative argued that D.C. zoning regulations permit billboards. The District's lawyers countered that city regulations "show a rational and organized approach to slowly, gradually, and without any disturbance of existing property interests, eliminate billboards in the District of Columbia," providing "good cause for the denial of a license for a new billboard." The appeals board agreed with Rollins, noting that the regulations "neither state nor imply" a policy to get rid of billboards and, in addition, state that the city must show "good cause" for denying permits.

In complying with the board's decision that the permits must be given to Rollins, city officials issued temporary permits only. The company turned to the appeals court, which ordered the District to grant full permission.

Michael E. Higgins, Rollins' chief financial officer, said the company would not comment on city government and court decisions except to say, "We are currently, and in the future we will be, in compliance with the law."

Higgins said that Rollins is one of the 10 largest outdoor advertising companies in the country and that it "works very closely with city governments and municipalities to stay within the spirit and the letter of the law." He said the company believes "we must resolve on a city-by-city basis what's fair, what's within the bounds of conservatism and what's good business."

The appeals court decision prompted the Department of Housing and Community Development to draw up the new rules, which limit the size of billboards to a maximum of 300 square feet and prohibit their erection in or near residential zones, D.C. and federal parks and buildings, and historic landmarks and districts.

The rules also provide that the federal Commission of Fine Arts, the arbiter of architectural aesthetics in much of Washington, review any applications for permits in the "monumental core" of the city, including the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, as well as in Rock Creek Park. However, the commission only can make recommendations; it has no authority to approve or disapprove permits.

Although the rules prohibit billboards in the areas where the Fine Arts Commission has review powers, Charles H. Atherton, the commission's secretary, said the agency's officials are concerned that "some very important areas of the city" include industrial zones.

McMahon said that, despite efforts by state legislators and groups such as the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, the big signs have proliferated along the nation's streets and highways. The billboard industry is "running amuck," putting up more signs than ever in the wake of its intense lobbying that helped water down the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and cut back money for enforcement efforts, he asserted.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America spent $99.6 million last year in speakers' fees to House and Senate members, a figure that was exceeded only by the $126 million paid by the Tobacco Institute, according to a Wall Street Journal tabulation. Ironically, the top 10 outdoor advertisers are cigarette manufacturers, with the Marlboro man in the lead in amount spent -- $17.2 million, according to figures compiled by Marketing and Media Decisions, a trade publication.

An employe of the Outdoor Advertising Association said the organization is a lobbying group and usually does not discuss the industry with reporters. Executive Director Vern Clark did not return phone calls.

Reports issued last year by the General Accounting Office and Transportation Department Inspector General Joseph P. Welsch found that highway cleanup programs no longer are helping to reduce the number of billboards.

A new legislative effort has been initiated by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who introduced a bill last summer that would ban new billboards along the nation's highways. The bill has been referred to the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, but officials said it is not likely to be considered in the near future while Congress grapples with tax reform and deficit-reduction legislation.