TAKOMA PARK -- This city that became a magnet for hippies in the 1970s, declared itself a nuclear-free zone in the 1980s and championed environmentally friendly lawn mowers in the 1990s is trying to forge a new identity.

Founded as one of the nation's first suburbs in 1883, the city just north of Washington is scheduled to vote this fall on whether to join Montgomery County, join Prince George's County or stay divided between the two.

While a vote to join Montgomery County seems all but assured, nothing in this city of tree-lined streets and progressive attitudes is ever simple.

"This is the kind of place where you're likely to get opinions on everything from everybody," said David Eisner, a 46-year-old vegetarian who came to Takoma Park 22 years ago to visit a coffee house and now runs a store that sells an eclectic collection of folk music instruments. "Whatever kind of cause you have, it's likely to find some support if it's left of center."

Most residents say they favor joining affluent white-majority Montgomery County for pragmatic reasons: better schools and services, higher property values and lower car insurance rates.

Taxpayers on the Prince George's side of Takoma Park will see their tax bills drop an average of $416 if the city joins Montgomery County, according to city figures.

"It's really not going to change anything in your life too much, but if it's going to mean higher property values and lower insurance rates, why not?" says Timothy Smith, a pony-tailed clerk in Mr. Eisner's store.

But political observers say the Nov. 7 vote is an attempt to flee Prince George's, a black majority county with a reputation for deteriorating schools, heftier taxes and a higher crime rate.

"I think there's a perception that this county's a sinking ship," acknowledged Prince George's County Councilman Walter H. Maloney.

Goes its own way

Takoma Park, a community of almost 17,000, has a history of going its own way.

It may have fewer coffee houses, health food stores and vegetarian restaurants than it did in the '70s, but the residents drawn here two decades ago by cheap rents, tolerant attitudes and proximity to Washington still give the city a distinctly progressive flavor.

After passing a resolution declaring Takoma Park a nuclear-free zone in 1983, the city investigated buying Swedish-made Volvos for police cars because at the time General Motors Corp. was in the nuclear weapons business.

The city settled on Chryslers -- made by a company not involved in weapons production -- when the Volvos proved too pricey.

And this year, the city council passed a resolution to heighten awareness of the inefficiency of gas-powered lawn mowers.

"If people want to think of us as liberal or progressive that's fine, but I also like to emphasize it's a well-run city," says Mayor Ed Sharp, who uses an electric mower on his lawn.

Real estate experts say property values are likely to increase in the two-fifths of Takoma Park that now lies in Prince George's County if the city jumps to Montgomery County.

Joseph E. Gregory, an Upper Marlboro real estate appraiser, says that based on an informal survey of the prices of a dozen comparable homes sold in Takoma Park in recent months, those on the Montgomery County side went for $50,000 more than those in Prince George's County.

At a meeting last month, Takoma Park officials told residents that auto insurance rates may be lower.

The move to join Montgomery County began a decade ago, when voters approved a nonbinding advisory referendum.

But state legislators from Prince George's County killed all bills that would have allowed the city to slip over the border, until last January when a spate of political horse-trading allowed a bill to pass placing the issue on Takoma Park's November ballot.

800 want to join

Just southeast of Takoma Park, a group of residents has launched a now-or-never effort to join the city before the November unification vote.

About 800 people who live within the 90-acre annexation parcel will vote on Aug. 22 whether to join Takoma Park. The annexation plan is not a deal, and has brought out all of the democracy-at-work elements of a New England town meeting.

Neighbors have flocked to public hearings, launched petition drives, sold T-shirts and gone door to door on the pros and cons of joining Takoma Park.

Gary Pendleton, a 40-year-old marketing representative, has been banging on doors and passing out petitions since February, touting the benefits of becoming part of Takoma Park.

Homeowners would get city trash collection instead of paying private haulers roughly $200 a year. And, proponents say, residents might see an end to the confusion over whether 911 calls should be handled by Takoma Park or Prince George's police.

"We're in kind of a no man's land for police and fire services. If it wasn't for this referendum, nobody would ever know we were here," says Alison Porter, an annexation proponent.

Opponents have been just as active.

Nellie Moxley, who runs a printing and copying business out of her Pinecrest home, has been hauling her three grandchildren around with her since June 1, banging on the same doors as Mr. Pendleton to spread the anti-annexation gospel.

Property taxes

Opponents say joining Takoma Park will add about $640 to the tax bill of homeowners, who will have to support a city and a county government.

"You're going to run out all the elderly people on fixed incomes because they won't be able to afford the taxes," said Mrs. Moxley, 54.

Though financial considerations will be a factor in the outcome, people will decide based on the same concept that has always guided this quirky city, residents say.

"Ultimately, when everything gets weighed and balanced, it just makes common sense," said Mr. Eisner.

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