A lawyer for the state of Maryland told a federal court yesterday that efforts to bail out 357 failed real estate partnerships established by Equity Programs Investment Corp. (EPIC) could fall apart unless a plan of reorganization is approved within three months.

"Either we're going to have a workout operating by the middle of the spring, or we're going to have a disaster," said Daniel M. Lewis, a lawyer for the state agency running Community Savings & Loan, EPIC's Bethesda parent.

Maryland took control of Community and EPIC last September after the EPIC partnerships defaulted on $1.4 billion of mortgage payments and filed for bankruptcy. Facing an estimated loss of more than $100 million, Maryland has been negotiating with the partnerships, EPIC creditors, and the companies that insured the loans over a plan to sell the houses controlled by the partnerships.

At a hearing on charges against some EPIC officials in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Lewis told Judge Claude M. Hilton that the negotiators are effectively working against an April 30 deadline. That date is important because it is effectively the final day federal regulators can approve a plan for restructuring the EPIC loans, according to Lewis and other lawyers involved in the bailout negotiations.

The restructuring is considered critical to any bailout. Savings and loan associations owning the EPIC loans have been anxious to avoid reporting the loans as problem assets, a move which could be a severe blow to some with financial difficulties.

Although no interest payments have been made on the EPIC loans since August, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board agreed recently, in an unusual move, that the loans do not have to be reported as problem assets for now. The reason is that three major mortgage insurance companies agreed to place $43.3 million in an escrow account to cover the missed interest payments as of October 30.

The Bank Board, the federal regulator for the nation's thrift institutions, has said its approval of this reporting technique is contingent on bankruptcy court approval for a plan of reorganization under development by a major group of EPIC creditors.

A bank board spokesman said that unless agreement is reached on a plan by April 30, the thrifts owning EPIC loans will have to report them as "scheduled items," the regulatory term for problem assets. Lawyers involved in the negotiations said the reclassification is required because interest payments would be delinquent more than six months.

"We view it [April 30] as a pretty firm deadline," William J. Perlstein, a lawyer for the group of creditors working on a plan, said after the hearing. Another creditors' lawyer, who would comment only if he were not named, said the bank board might bend the rules if the delay is only two weeks, but with any more delay, "Everything unravels."

The negotiations over the bailout are now moving into a critical phase, lawyers agreed.

The lawyer for the partnerships, Roger M. Whelan, has been working on a workout plan that lawyers say differs from the provisions for the liquidation of EPIC houses developed by the major creditors. Lawyers said the creditors are negotiating with Whelan to persuade him to submit their plan to the court, or, short of that, major elements of its plan.