Ever since workers began knocking down trees separating her house from Warfield Road in the Salem's Grant subdivision in Gaithersburg, Susan Walther hasn't let her children play in the back yard. They play in the front yard now because she thinks it's safer.

"My fear is that with this road being 'improved,' someone is going to swing around that curve and go barreling into the yard with the kids out there," said Walther, who lives with her husband, Richard, and two children, Rebecca, 10, and Matthew, 8. "I'm really scared."

Kettler Bros., the project's developers, said it is required to remove a 150-foot row of 20-foot-high hickory and dogwood trees to allow Maryland transportation officials to widen Warfield Road and make it safer.

The residents, however, said the removal of the trees came as a surprise to them because they were told by Kettler officials and the area's planning board that the trees would not be taken down. Many of the more than 80 residents of the neighborhood said they were expecting a view of the trees from the windows of their two-story homes, which cost $150,000 or more.

The dispute at Salem's Grant is not unlike those that occasionally occur throughout the Washington area, where buffers of trees shielding one subdivision from another or from a nearby road can disappear in a matter of hours.

Distraught homeowners often say that sales agents or government officials have misled them into thinking that stands of trees will remain, although rarely do the homeowners have such pledges in writing. Sometimes governmental agencies or developers other than those making the promises have made plans to knock down the trees.

At Salem's Grant, Kettler has now offered residents a landscape architect's plan that calls for planting new trees closer to the homes. Maryland transportation officials said they are planning to remove the remaining trees and continue with the construction of an eight-foot grassy shoulder and a drainage ditch adjacent to Warfield Road.

According to Montgomery County records, Kettler officials filed a permit to have the road work done in April 1985. They received two extensions; the latest requires the company to complete the work by Nov. 1.

"The county has made the feeling very clear that the trees must come down," said Tom McKenna, a Kettler Bros. sales representative. "We think it's prudent on homeowners' part to get to us as quickly as possible" about the landscaping plan.

Robert McGarry, director of the county Transportation Department, said county law requires developers to improve roads that are part of the subdivision. "The trees were in the county right-of-way, unfortunately," he said.

Bill Hartman, 28, said he noticed the bulldozers beginning to knock down the trees when he was heading to work on July 22.

"The trees were going down while I was on the phone to Kettler," said Hartman, who lives in a house with his wife, Sandra, that now looks across Warfield Road into the front yard of another home. "I couldn't get an answer from Kettler, hung up and went out to stand in front of the bulldozer."

Since that incident, no more trees have been knocked down. In the meantime, Hartman and a group of other residents have met with McKenna, McGarry and Robert Merriman of the county's Transportation Department on separate occasions to try to reach a compromise.

"We wanted to talk," Hartman said. "We wanted to reach a compromise, such as not clearing down all of the trees. But the Department of Transportation officials were talking at us, not with us."

Said McGarry, "We disagreed with them {about keeping the trees}. The road is a narrow, substandard road."

Hartman and other residents said that the portion of the road behind their houses is hardly as busy as several of the nearby intersections, such as Warfield and Goshen roads -- where numerous accidents have occurred. In fact, since some of the trees have been removed, residents said, cars have been driving faster because there is a more open line of sight.

Several of the Salem's Grant residents said they would have chosen different lots if they had known they would have a view of an asphalt road and local traffic.

"My husband and I picked out the lot early on in the development," said Liane R. Aaron, a legislative aide to a Maryland state representative, who lives in a home with her husband Bryan. "We called park and planning {officials} to ask if there was any work planned for Warfield Road and they said no."

Nellie Maskal, a county planner, said the residents were correctly informed, to the extent of Montgomery officials' knowledge. As it turns out, scheduled road improvements on regular residential streets -- like that stretch of Warfield Road -- would not appear on the county's master plan, but are filed with the transportation department.

In any event, Hartman and other residents said they believe the county is trying to improve a road well before it is necessary and are seeking a better landscaping solution.

"They have not gone as far with the buffer as they should," Hartman said. "We would like to have {a} tighter {grouping of trees}, more mature trees and maybe even a fence."