Driving the back roads of Mitchellville on a late afternoon, the community at first blush looks a lot like it has for years. Fields of shoulder-high corn stalks sway gently in the breeze and "Hay for Sale" signs appear along a long, curving road.

Fifteen miles from downtown Washington, the community feels as if it were farther away, both in time and space -- back in the years when eastern Prince George's County was rural. That's why it's surprising to see a BMW maneuvering the tight curves of Rte. 556.

The rural ways of Mitchellville are fast giving way to change. Nearly everywhere, developers are carving Prince George's newest, upscale community out of what five years ago was countryside.

Farms are being bulldozed for new subdivisions with names such as Locust Grove, Lake Arbor, Tall Oaks and Paradise Acres. Here and there a country store holds on, adding a bit of rural charm to rapidly engulfing suburbia. The area's farmers are being displaced by the black and the white middle-class home buyers.

Bill Kirk and his family, for example, were attracted to the area for its rural flavor, but also because it is centrally located. Mitchellville is close to the Capital Beltway, which makes the trip into the District about a half-hour commute, close to new malls and strip shopping centers in Bowie and a 30-minute car ride to the beach on the Chesapeake Bay.

"It is close enough to Washington to have access to everything there, but it is still a good place to raise children," said Hilary Kirk, a part-time graduate student at Bowie State College. The Kirks, along with their three daughters, Jenelle, 7, Allison, 4, and Stefanie, 20 months, moved to Mitchellville a year ago. The children attend Woodmore Elementary School, about three miles away.

Their 3,700-square-foot home on Locust Glen Drive sits on 2 1/4 acres of land and is partially hidden from the road by towering trees. It was appraised several years ago at $280,000 but sold for less than that. The same home in Montgomery County or Northern Virginia would cost $30,000 to $40,000 more, real estate agents said.

Bill Kirk said when the family wanted to move from nearby Kettering, they considered going back to Washington, where they had lived in a small apartment before venturing into the Maryland suburbs. They found, however, that houses where they wanted to live -- in the 16th Street corridor -- were older and more expensive than they wanted. They looked along the New Hampshire Avenue corridor up into Silver Spring. Then a real estate agent showed them the split-level, contemporary home in Mitchellville that they eventually purchased.

"You get a better home, more house for your money," said Bill Kirk, a Capitol Hill lawyer and lobbyist, while sitting on his covered octagonal deck. "We spent a lot less than friends we know in Bethesda or Chevy Chase."

Founded just after the Civil War, the community got its name from the Mitchells, a large farming family that settled in the area. For years, the community was little more than farms surrounding a post office near a railroad track, just west of what is now Bowie.

Today, Mitchellville is a divergent community in transition, where rural meets suburbia and black meets white and where the only commonality is the 20716 zip code and the whirlwind growth on the horizon.

"It is being urbanized quite rapidly," said William Cambrel, a staffer at Enterprise Golf Course, a public 18-hole course that anchors the western boundary of Mitchellville. "In the last 25 years it was very rural and farm country. It is being built up quite a bit now."

In 1985 the area had 807 residents, according to the Prince George's County Park and Planning Commission. Planners forecast that by 1990 the area will have 2,230 residents.

Real estate agents interviewed said the cost of housing elsewhere and the area's close-in location are the most important factors in Mitchellville's housing boom. A third factor is that the area fulfills a niche in Prince George's for upscale housing. Houses in the area start at $130,000 and top out at $200,000 -- still about $40,000 less than in Northern Virginia, real estate agents say. Amenities include skylights, fireplaces in the master bedrooms, sunken bathtubs and cathedral ceilings. Homes in neighboring Woodmore, a community largely credited with starting the trend of upscale housing in eastern Prince George's, start at $250,000 for condominium "villas" and soar into the half-million-dollar range.

John Casey, an associate broker at O'Conor, Piper and Flynn/Casey Realty, said Mitchellville is attracting Prince Georgians who can afford better housing but want to stay near the communities where they have roots, as well as families from the District and other suburbs that are looking for nice, but relatively affordable, housing.

But as with every community that has arrived, Mitchellville is beginning to feel the pressure of growth. While Bill Kirk would like to see the county widen the rural, winding country roads that take him to Central Avenue or Rte. 202, he fears the effect that widening would have on the country flavor of his community.

Myra Nelson, who has lived in Mitchellville for almost three years, said there are already concerns that the widening of Lottsford Road and the proposed rezoning of 140 acres at Rte. 202 and the Capital Beltway for retail development are signs of things to come. Developers are eyeing another 900 acres of land for rezoning to allow both high density residential and commercial building.

"They are ruining the neighborhood," said Nelson, a real estate agent with Archway Realty. "Most of the people who bought custom homes {in Mitchellville} bought them for privacy and lot size. They are ruining the country flavor of the roads. They have torn the trees down. A lot of people are starting to say it's becomig too concentrated. It's changing."