The federal agency responsible for protecting the nation's historic properties has sharply attacked the Justice Department for failing to comply with a federal preservation law last year when it prematurely auctioned off a landmark Loudoun County estate seized in a highly publicized drug raid.

In a harshly worded letter, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation charged that the U.S. Marshals Service, a branch of the Justice Department, has refused to take the required steps to protect Shelburne Glebe, a sprawling, 734-acre estate about 10 miles southwest of Leesburg.

The estate is listed on the register of federal and Virginia historic landmarks and is located in the Goose Creek Historic District, a rural tract of 10,000 acres in central Loudoun listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The latest development in the prolonged dispute over the future of the estate is yet another chapter in a series of finger-pointing episodes involving Congress, private preservation groups and several state and federal agencies with competing interests.

Last month, Justice officials acknowledged that they inadvertently auctioned off Shelburne Glebe last year before consulting with the Advisory Council, as required by a 21-year-old federal law.

Had the Justice Department alerted them prior to the auction, Advisory Council staff members said this week that they would have recommended that the sales contract include restrictive covenants preventing any development of the unspoiled, 200-year-old estate.

While the sale is not yet final, Advisory Council staff members said there is now little room for any such recommendations because a contract has already been signed by the Marshals Service and a prospective buyer. The existing sales contract contains no mention of any protective measures for preserving the historic landmark.

In a letter to the Marshals Service, the Advisory Council accused the agency of not giving "serious and meaningful consideration" to recommendations.

"The actions already taken by the U.S. Marshals Service appear to have precluded the possibility of productive consultation on the effects of the transfer," the council said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained this week by The Washington Post.

The Advisory Council's unusual rebuke was written by staff members at the federal historic preservation agency, although it is believed to be representative of the views of the council's board. A panel of the board is expected to consider the issue next Friday, at which time further steps to protect the glebe are likely to be considered.

The sharp criticism leaves an uncertain future for the estate, although local preservationists claim the council's move could be a way to force Justice to impose its own covenants on the sale.

"It puts Justice in the most embarrassing position they can be in," said William Brown, who lives near the estate and is a leader in the fight to keep the estate from being developed. "Maybe that's just what Justice needs to ... terminate the sale."

Brown said the Advisory Council letter could also be useful if nearby residents should decide to sue the federal government to stop the sale of the estate if no covenants are placed on the property's deed.

But Roger Ray, the U.S. Marshal for the eastern district of Virginia, denied that his office was remiss in its handling of the auction. "I don't think the Marshals Service has any egg on its face," he said.

Ray said "one possibility" would be to "go back to square one," which he said could mean canceling the existing sales contract and conducting another auction after considering recommendations from the Advisory Council. He declined to discuss other alternatives.

"In the end, everything will be resolved satisfactorily to all parties," Ray said.

Other Justice officials said the Advisory Council's stern letter was unwarranted.

"They didn't understand our position," said Brad Cates, director of the department's asset forfeiture division. "We want them to {have} their role. We are going to assure the {Advisory Council} that their input will be fully and fairly received."

In the meantime, the Justice Department is being criticized on Capitol Hill over its handling of the matter.

"I'm very confident that Justice will acquiesce to our request and make sure the glebe is protected. That's been their indication," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who, along with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), has been pressing the department to solve the dispute.

Wolf expressed anger over the political maneuvering occurring among the various federal agencies.

"Whether the Advisory Council wants to do it, or the Marshals Service or Justice, we've got a property that has to be protected," he said.

Shelburne Glebe, located in the heart of the hunt country, is Northern Virginia's sole remaining Anglican glebe house, a colonial parish house purchased with tax dollars. It was also home to George Washington's chaplain.

In recent years, however, the glebe became notorious. Until 1985, the secluded estate was home to Christopher F. Reckmeyer, a convicted drug kingpin who is now in a federal prison in California after pleading guilty to running a nationwide narcotics distribution ring.

Federal marshals seized the estate in a drug raid. After the Justice Department won a legal battle over the ownership of the estate, the property attracted a $4.1 million offer in an auction bid from Jubran A. Badra, a Washington business and commercial real estate broker.

But in auctioning off the estate, Justice officials failed to follow the dictates of the 21-year-old Historic Preservation Act. One provision in the law requires the federal government to consult with state and federal historic preservation agencies prior to selling any federally owned site.

The law was set up to prevent the destruction of historic sites by allowing the preservation agencies to survey federal landmark properties and recommend what protective steps should be taken before a final sale.

Badra was unavailable this week for comment on the latest twist in the case. He has never publicly stated his intentions for the property.

That public silence, coupled with a development industry that is quickly transforming many of Loudoun's rolling meadows into subdivisions, has created anxiety for preservationists who fear Badra might develop the property into a huge housing project.