Overview of the Reston National Golf Course in Reston, as seen from Sunrise Valley Drive in summer 2012. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Fairfax County’s Board of Zoning Appeals ruled Wednesday that the owners of a popular golf course in Reston could seek approval for new homes on the 166-acre property without first getting changes made to the county’s master plan for new development.

But efforts to put new townhouses or apartments on the publicly accessible golf course could still be subject to county guidelines more specific to Reston, which is a planned community, the seven-member board ruled. And since RN Golf Management hasn’t said what it wants to build on the 45-year-old golf course, the ruling addresses only a hypothetical scenario.

“There is a very long road ahead,” said board member Kevin Hart, before a unanimous vote to overrule a 2012 determination by the county zoning administrator that the Reston National Golf Course could not be altered without first changing its designation as “open space” in the county’s comprehensive plan.

The ruling was the latest step in what are eventual plans to put new homes on the golf course, which is a short walk from a recently opened Silver Line train station and the site of another station scheduled to open in 2018.

RN Golf Management — which includes the Northwestern Mutual insurance company — bought the golf course in 2005 to use for residential development and has been seeking confirmation from the county of its right to do that, said the group’s attorney, Frank McDermott.

McDermott said Wednesday that there were still no concrete development plans for the golf course. “I have to advise the client” about the ruling, he said.

The possibility of losing a treasured destination for local runners and nature enthusiasts has sparked a fierce backlash from Reston residents who are already frustrated by increasing traffic and other problems they blame on new residential development near the Silver Line route. The golf course, which is also used by county high school golf teams, embodies Reston’s “Live, Work, Play” motto, residents say.

Both sides agree that any new homes on the golf course would ultimately have to be approved by the county Board of Supervisors, which has generally protected the remaining parcels of open land in Fairfax County.

But such are the passions among Reston residents that one local group — Rescue Reston — said Wednesday that it is considering fighting the board of zoning appeals ruling in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

Connie Hartke, the group’s president, said the fight to keep the golf course has been frustrating.

“We’re going to carefully consider our options,” Hartke said, as she sat inside the county government center moments after the board ruling. “Something that’s made it difficult for all of us is that RN Golf has never said what it’d like to do.”