Reston’s mantra is “Live. Work. Play,” all in one place. With ample emphasis on the play: lots of swimming pools, tennis courts, ballfields, lakes and golf courses helped make the planned community the largest population center in Fairfax County, with more than 58,000 residents.

The 17th hole at Reston National Golf Club, shot in April 2004. It is one of two golf courses in the unincorporated town of about 58,000, and considered vital by many to Reston’s ethos of “Work. Live. Play.” (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

The golf course, which came into being around 1970, is owned by RN Golf Management LLC, a group of institutional investors. Its lawyers sent a letter to Fairfax County in April asking for clarification on what, exactly, was the zoning status of the golf course. Because by RN Golf’s interpretation, it was zoned residential, and the owner could build pretty much anything residential they wanted, within reason.

Fairfax County wrote back and said “No way.” It’s a golf course. If you want to change that, you’ve got to get a change in the whole Fairfax County plan. And RN Golf said “No way.” So last month, RN filed an appeal with the Board of Zoning Appeals on the county’s first “No way,” seeking to clarify what they could possibly build on the gorgeous 18-hole course just south of Reston Parkway along Sunrise Valley Drive.

Neighbors who were promised they’d be living on or near a golf course, and bought houses there, are opposed to seeing it go away. They have formed a group called Rescue Reston, and they have a Web site and a Facebook page. They are pooling funds to hire a lawyer and an accountant, group spokesman John Pinkman said.

But this case is about more than a golf course. The Metro is coming to Reston, and lots of large development decisions are coming down the pike there. How will Reston’s master plan, using concentrated density to create green space elsewhere, fit with those who would build the next Ballston around Reston’s stations at Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway?

Reston’s creator, Robert E. Simon, told me recently that it fits fine, so long as you still have the recreation. Tearing out a golf course wouldn’t exactly make sense along those lines. Reston doesn’t have its own government; the calls will all be made by Fairfax County.

“This is a moment in the town’s history,” Pinkman said, “when we start clarifying who’s going to keep Reston’s promises.”

An April letter from RN’s lawyer Mark C. Looney to the county’s director of planning and zoning lays out the golf course owner’s historical analysis of the property’s zoning. Here are the highlights of that analysis:

“The Property’s use is not restricted to permanent open space...[nothing] would prohibit use of the Property for any of the uses permitted” under residential zoning ... redevelopment “does not require an amendment to” the county’s master plan ...“the county is obliged and must accept and process the owners’ application” for a residential proposal.

Okay then. Nothing to see here folks. Just thinking about building condos on your golf course, nothing you can do about it.

Cathy S. Belgin, a senior zoning administrator with the county, penned the aforementioned, three-page “No way.” The golf course was approved as a golf course in 1971, and any change in that status “would require an amendment to the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan,” Belgin wrote. That involves going through county staff review, planning commission review, and then Board of Supervisors review and vote. And that’s just to get the zoning changed. Then you’d have to do all that again to build a building.

So RN Golf is appealing Belgin’s letter, saying Belgin “attempts to strip RN of its property rights” and RN shouldn’t have go through the plan amendment process. Which, if they didn’t, would eliminate a sizable obstacle and make that property between the two new Metro stations very attractive indeed, for sale or redevelopment.

Looney told me that what RN Golf was seeking “is not a rezoning. What this is is trying to determine what the actual zoning of the property is today.” Yes, but then what? Looney said he couldn’t say any more about whether his clients had specific ideas or whether they were just assessing their options.

The case for clarification of whether a golf course can be more than a golf course goes before the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals on Oct. 24. There seem to be an awful lot of hurdles for anyone who’d want to tear out the golf course. We’ll see if RN Golf wants to run that long race.

For more on this, the hard-working Karen Goff at Reston had a story last week and the Restonian blog has both analysis and a wistful photo show of the golf course through the years. And here are all the key county documents in the case to this point.