Many Washingtonians haven't been properly introduced to Warrenton. To them, it's a fast-food pit stop on the way to Skyline Drive. That's because they haven't veered off the highway bypass, into the town's historic center.

Warrenton (population 5,000), the Fauquier County seat, an hour southwest of Washington, is Middleburg without the pretensions, Leesburg without the traffic glut. It has columns, brick, gingerbread trim and wrought iron.

You can still buy a horse blanket there, or strong-smelling cattle liniment. Warrenton's part-time mayor, Bill Lineweaver, can still be found at his furniture store, Carter's. You can buy a Peugeot station wagon in Warrenton, or a tractor.

Warrenton has fancy restaurants, but there's also the Frost Diner, where you can settle into a vinyl booth and order the special Wing Ding Platter of fried chicken wings.

Warrenton is a divider, of sorts, between the whirlwind of suburbia and the Great Virginia beyond.

Venture much farther out and you're into serious Virginia farm country, the land of mud-splattered pickups, cattle auctions and rifle racks.

Come much closer to Washington and you soon hit the new subdivisions near Dulles International Airport, the neon signs and the sprawling shopping malls.

"The people down here still do not consider themselves to be part of the metro area," said Steve Crosby, Fauquier County's administrator. "But we do have a large number of commuters who work in metropolitan Washington, but still escape out here to live. That way, they have the country and the town, both."

Irvin Garrett, 82, a Warrenton native, said, "Up to the present time, I liked it real well here, because of the surrounding beauty of the town and the mountains and all. It has been a nice, quiet place to live. But, now, I don't know whether I'm too pleased with some of the things."

He mentioned crime, which is minuscule compared with Washington's, and the increasing clamor among newcomers for suburban-type services. A dispute is raging now about how many sidewalks Warrenton should have.

"Don't get me wrong," Garrett said. "I don't object to people coming in, but we have so many that come in from Fairfax County, and when they get here, they want the very things that they left down there for. If that's what they wanted, then why'd they come up here?"

Catherine Imhoff, an environmental planner with the Piedmont Environmental Council, a private nonprofit group, moved from Charlottesville to Warrenton 1 1/2 years ago. Initially, she was disappointed.

"Coming from a university area, you notice right away what Warrenton lacks -- a movie theater, for example. You have to drive into Manassas. You can actually go see a movie easier in Rappahannock County, which is a lot more rural than Warrenton.

"And, when I moved here, Warrenton only had one bar where you could go for a drink after hours. It now has two. So, although it gives you the impression of being a fairly large town, in a lot of ways it's still very much stepping back in time.

"It really is a rural town," she added. "We laugh about the fact that the stores really do roll up their carpets at 12 on Saturday. If you're coming from Fairfax, where you can buy things 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it seems kind of charming."

Imhoff is now a Warrenton convert.

She likes the proximity to Old Rag -- a Blue Ridge mountain popular among hikers. She enjoys cross-country skiing in Sky Meadows State Park, at the northern end of the county.

When she wants to shop, she sometimes goes to Charlottesville, which is about 1 1/2 hours away.

"I'd rather die than go to Fair Oaks Mall," said Imhoff, referring to the traffic-clogged shopping mall in western Fairfax County.

"There's a horse tradition here," Lineweaver said, "and Warrenton's the county seat of Fauquier, so your courthouse is here, most of your attorneys are here, and naturally all of your county offices."

The predominant political issue in Warrenton, as in all of Northern Virginia, is growth.

Fauquier's population is growing an estimated 3.5 to 4 percent annually, Crosby said. Warrenton itself is only 3.3 square miles, and could probably accommodate another 2,000 people or so before it is officially considered "full," said Robert B. Gardner, Warrenton's planning director.

The town and its fringe area will become the future growth and retail center of Fauquier, he said, but everyone is hopeful that development can be kept within reasonable limits. Many Fauquier residents said they are determined to support such practices as cluster-building.

"I certainly think it's possible -- given the current comprehensive plans at the county and town level, and all the different tools of implementation that we have: zoning, subdivision ordinances, historic district guidelines ... for Warrenton to maintain its rural atmosphere, even in light of the tremendous and rapid growth that's occurring in the Northern Virginia area," Gardner said.

Warrenton lifted its moratorium on sewer connections last winter. "A lot of people predicted we'd be inundated with building applications for permits, but that hasn't happened," Gardner said. Most of the growth seems to be occurring outside town limits.

One factor that could hinder development: There's only one Fauquier County high school, and it's crowded. Voters last spring rejected a $30 million bond issue, which would have included construction of a second high school.

Fauquier's high school has 1,850 students, some of whom attend classes in trailers because there is not enough permanent space, said guidance director Bruce Holland. The average class has 25 to 30 students, although the number dips to about 15 in difficult courses such as advanced math.

"You notice crowding the most in the halls and cafeteria," Holland said. "It's terribly crowded there. People jostle each other, and we have three lunch shifts to try to get everybody in -- they have about 25 minutes to eat."

Development could also slow because for some people, Warrenton is just too far away -- it's on the border of what many D.C. workers consider to be a sane and an insane commute.

The trip to Washington takes an hour in nonrush-hour periods, but 1 1/2 hours or more in rush hour. Traffic is often stop and go on I-66 near Manassas as early as 5 a.m.

Many people who live in the Warrenton area have flexible work hours, or they have shorter commutes -- to Fairfax City, perhaps, or Tysons Corner. But there are hardy souls who endure the commute to the District for the privilege of coming home each night to Fauquier's rolling hills.

"Probably half our buyers are from other metropolitan areas within Washington, that want to get out," said Bob Hockensmith, a partner in Rainbow V.I.P. Realtors.

The average three-bedroom house in Warrenton, with a half acre of land, sells for between $110,000 and $125,000, Hockensmith said.

Customers willing to move outside Warrenton can buy a four-bedroom colonial, with two to 10 acres of land -- and maybe a Blue Ridge view -- for $125,000 to $150,000, he said.