TALL TIMBERS, MD. -- Start a conversation about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in this sleepy community along the banks of the Potomac River and many of the 300 residents can talk for hours.

Little of it, however, is praise.

For decades, homeowners in this shoreline community 75 miles southeast of Washington have been unsuccessfully battling erosion that is gobbling up properties along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Only 15 years ago, residents would spend weekends along the modest mile-long stretch of beach that dipped 15 or so feet toward the Potomac. Today, five-feet-deep water laps against a sea wall where beach blankets once rested.

But many residents of this close-knit community, home to retirees, young working families and so-called weekenders, claim Tall Timbers effectively lost the erosion fight more than 20 years ago when the Corps came to town.

And now, after the Corps' most recent erosion abatement work last year racked up a $300,000 cost overrun, some residents say they hope the Corps will never return.

"Mother Nature does enough of the erosion problem without being exacerbated by the Corps of Engineers," said Robert Wagner, 66, a retired electrical engineer whose family moved to Tall Timbers in the early 1900s.

Wagner's anger with the Corps intensified in the past several months after he and about 50 other property owners along a half-mile stretch of shoreline were told by St. Mary's County that they will probably be responsible for paying the federal agency's cost overrun. The overrun could cost residents from $170 to $600 each per year for 10 years, according to the local citizens association.

It is a bill the residents say they are not liable for and are hoping not to pay. It would not be the first time the homeowners have paid for erosion abatement. Since the early 1950s, Tall Timbers residents have been taxed hundreds of thousands of dollars for several Corps projects.

Now, they say, they have paid enough.

They have taken their case to whomever wants to listen, claiming that the cost overrun was the Corps' doing.

The group's letters and telephone calls have captured some attention.

"I don't want the residents to pay for it," said Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D-Md.), whose district includes Tall Timbers. "It seems to be leaning that the Corps is at fault."

Dyson, backed by Maryland Democratic Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, last month asked the Department of Defense inspector general's office to look into the cost overrun. A report is due by the end of the month, Dyson said.

Understanding the stormy emotions some Tall Timbers residents have toward the Corps means looking at three decades of Corps projects near the town.

In 1953, the Corps built a sea wall along about one-half mile of coast in an effort to keep back the Potomac's sometimes violent waters.

Most Tall Timbers residents, who paid for the sea wall under a special taxing district in the 1950s, were happy with the Corps' work.

"We thought the erosion problem was licked," said Arthur Beauverd, whose house along the banks of the Potomac River was built by his wife's grandmother in 1925.

Then in the early 1960s, the Corps built two long jetties -- essentially large piles of rocks -- in an effort to preserve a channel that leads into a bay on the northern edge of Tall Timbers.

The jetties stretched out about 800 feet into the Potomac and prevented the buildup of sand in the channel by halting the mostly southerly flow of sand that occurs along this stretch of the Potomac.

Tall Timbers residents living to the south of the jetties were told that some erosion might occur because the natural flow of sand would be slowed.

"But they never told us of the extent of the erosion to our beach," said Wagner.

Within about 15 years, the beach along the town's shoreline had vanished. Because of the flow of sand and the presence of the jetties, residents of McKays Beach, a small community north of the jetties, and Tall Timbers have actually seen sand build up in some areas north of the jetty.

As the Tall Timbers beach disappeared over the years, erosion to the shoreline properties intensified.

In the spring of 1986, the St. Mary's County board of commissioners approved a Corps project to add a 2,700-foot stone revetment -- a long, horizontal pile of compacted rocks -- to protect Tall Timbers' shoreline. The county agreed to pay any amount over $1 million, although local officials were told the project would be completed in a range of $850,000 to $950,000.

By the time the work was finished last January, the bill for the project totaled $1,304,327.

"We were very frustrated by our inability to have any input for what was happening," said John Norris, the county's public works director. "We were continually butting heads with the Corps people."

He said officials "were under the assumption" that the project would never go over $1 million. "It's just been a very tough project for us, especially dealing with a government agency that is supposed to work with us."

Dyson said he was also left in the dark about the cost overruns as the project progressed. "The Corps came to me and said everything was fine ... . I can see going over a few dollars, but the errors here are gross, and we're not talking about a group that has never done this work before."

The Corps defends the revetment.

"They've got a really good project," said Harold Clingerman, a spokesman for the Corps' Baltimore regional office.

He attributed the cost overrun to two major storms, including Hurricane Gloria, that increased erosion in the time between the original Corps estimate and when the work began. In addition, Clingerman said the Corps' private contracting firm packed the stones of the revetment more compactly than normal for such projects. As a result, more stones were needed, increasing the cost.

Residents, though, claim the project's full-time inspector should have caught the stone packing.

Clingerman, however, said "over-packing is not considered a mistake even if it leads to more money {being spent}. Now they've got a project that's going to last longer."

Residents angrily dispute that.

"The Corps is inept," Wagner said as he stood on a dock and watched the Potomac's three-foot waves crash against a sea wall.

Wagner and others are also angry that the Corps did not try to bring back the town's beach after its jetty project. He said one option the Corps considered but rejected was shortening the jetties so sand could flow naturally south of the stone structures to the village's shore.

But Clingerman of the Corps said the $1.3 million stone revetment "was the cheapest project that would work ... economically as well as solving the problem of erosion. There was not a design mistake."

St. Mary's County has already paid about $170,000 of the $304,000 cost overrun, although it has appealed the s cost, according to Norris, the public works director.

He said that because the work is "a benefit to a selected group of citizens," county officials plan to charge homeowners in the town's special erosion taxing district if the county's cost appeal is unsuccessful.

For residents living along the shoreline closest to the revetment, the tax could be $600 per year over the next 10 years. For those living across the street from the river's edge, the tax could be about $170 per year for 10 years, according to Wagner of Tall Timbers.

Residents of the community are split because a handful of shoreline owners, whose properties did not receive the revetment work, might be charged anyway because their lots are in the special erosion taxing zone.

If there is an area of disagreement between longtime residents Wagner and Beauverd, who are leading the fight against the Corps, it is over who ultimately should be responsible if it cannot be proven that the project's overrun was the Corps' fault.

"We asked the county to approach the Corps to give us some relief. So, we are morally responsible," Beauverd said as the two men sat at Wagner's kitchen table. Beauverd is president of the Tall Timbers Citizens Association.

But Wagner who jokingly called Beauverd a "cult of one" for his belief that residents may have to pay for the cost overruns, concerning the residents' financial duties, said the county "signed a blank check to the Corps."

He added: "This is their problem, yet the Corps is asking for financial relief from us to correct their mistake.