The Justice Department, under pressure from Capitol Hill and state and local historic preservation agencies, said this week it intends to rescind the $4.1 million sales contract for the landmark Shelburne Glebe estate in Loudoun County and to auction the property again.

The surprise move by the Justice Department, which had failed to follow a 21-year-old federal law requiring consideration of the property's historic value before selling it, was viewed by preservationists and environmentalists in Loudoun as an initial victory.

Supporters of protecting the glebe have been pressing Justice to place restrictive covenants on any sales contract that would bar future development on the 734-acre estate, which was seized by federal marshals after a well-publicized drug raid in 1985.

Justice's plan to reauction the glebe, a colonial parish property purchased 200 years ago with tax dollars, increases the likelihood that attempts to prevent development of the secluded country estate will eventually be successful, congressional and preservation officials said.

The latest twist in the debate over the future of the estate, located 10 miles southwest of Leesburg, came several weeks after the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal agency responsible for protecting the nation's historic properties, sharply attacked Justice's handling of last year's glebe auction.

The advisory council, in an unusual rebuke of another government agency, said Justice violated the 1966 federal preservation law when it failed to take the required steps to protect the glebe before auctioning it off to Jubran A. Badra, a Washington commercial real estate broker.

The estate is listed on the register of federal and Virginia historic landmarks and is located in the 10,000-acre Goose Creek Historic District. With such historic designation, Justice should have asked the advisory council and a state preservation office for advice on protecting the landmark estate prior to the auction, according to the preservation law.

The sale of the glebe, however, was never completed because of an unrelated ownership dispute. It was further stalled after federal preservation officials last summer learned that Justice auctioned off the glebe before consulting with the preservation agencies.

In a letter to the advisory council this week, however, Justice said the attack by the preservation agency was "unwarranted and counterproductive."

Nonetheless, Justice said that before the glebe is reauctioned, it will provide "a full and complete opportunity" for the historic preservation agencies to make recommendations for protecting the estate.

"We reiterate that we have a completely open mind as to whether, and to what extent, restrictive covenants should be placed on the glebe as a condition of sale," Kent Robinson, an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in the letter to the advisory council.

Robinson did not return telephone calls for comment on why his agency has decided to reauction the property.

But Roger Ray, the U.S. marshal for Virginia's eastern district, whose office conducted last year's auction, denied that the political pressure from Congress and the preservation agencies had any impact on Justice's reversal.

"It had nothing to do with it at all," said Ray, whose agency is a branch of Justice. He contended that other delays, unrelated to the controversy over the Justice's failure to follow the 1966 preservation law, convinced the agency and Badra, the would-be buyer, to begin negotiations to cancel the existing $4.1 million sales contract.

Badra agreed that "the whole thing has taken too long" to settle. But he left open the possibility that he might again attempt to purchase the glebe in a future auction. "I'm a businessman. I might," he said.

A new auction the glebe could take place within six months, Ray said.

Proponents of protecting the glebe from office or housing subdivision development said that this week's reversal by Justice is an important step in reaching their goal of maintaining the estate as open space.

"It doesn't guarantee that covenants will be placed, but at least {Justice officials} made themselves open for that opportunity," said William Brown, who lives near the glebe and has been lobbying to halt settlement of last year's sales contract.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who, along with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), brought congressional pressure on Justice to protect the glebe, was more confident.

He said the recision of the sale "guarantees that Shelburne Glebe will be protected both from an environmental and historic point of view, and that {Justice} will comply with the law... . I'm very confident that the problem has been taken care of."

Robert D. Bush, executive director of the advisory council, said his agency still is convinced that some type of restrictive covenant is needed to prevent future development.

"I wouldn't call {Justice's reversal} a victory for us," said Bush, whose office last month accused Justice of not giving "serious and meaningful consideration" to recommendations made to protect the glebe. "We did what we are required to do with any federal agency."

With development sweeping into areas in and around Leesburg, activists prodding Justice to abide by provisions of the 1966 law contend that only restrictive covenants could save the open meadows and woods of the glebe. The estate contains Northern Virginia's sole remaining glebe house. George Washington's chaplain lived in the glebe house, a portion of which was built in 1773.

But Justice officials, according to sources, refused to impose covenants after the auction because the contract was already signed without any mention of development restrictions.

"What we are pleased about is that Justice is putting themselves in a better position to talk about preserving the glebe," said Brian Mitchell, director of the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks, whose agency has been pushing for the placement of the covenants.

"The basic question is whether or not you allow building on the glebe," he said. "For us, the ideal {outcome} would not allow any building. I would think there's no shortage of people who would want that sort of large estate close to Washington."

The glebe's previous owner particularly enjoyed the estate's seclusion. Until 1985, Shelburne Glebe was owned by Christopher F. Reckmeyer, a 36-year-old convicted drug kingpin originally from McLean. He is now serving a 17-year term in a California federal prison after pleading guilty to running a large drug trafficking operation that brought nearly 300 tons of marijuana and hashish into the United States.