Opponents and persons skeptical of plans for a civic center in Washington, hoping to prohibit the use of public funds for the controversial project, began collecting signatures yesterday for a petition drive that could place the whole matter before D.C. voters this spring.

Acting under a new law intended to give District residents initiative, referendum and recall powers, members of the Convention Center Referendum Committee said they expect to collect the required 8,500 signature - with 5 percent of the registered voters in each of five city wards - in time to place the civic center issue on the ballot in April or May.

"This is the first time in the histroy of the District that citizens have mounted an effort to put an item on the ballot," said Jack Phelan, a member of the committee who was working yesterday with his wife, Mary, to collect signatures at the busy Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

Phelan, long a critic of the proposed $100 million center, had collected about 120 names, mostly from Ward 6, as of noon. He said the petition drive would focus on shopping areas on the weekend and at Metro stops during the week, culminating in a big election day collection push on Nov. 7.

If successful, the referendum initiative placed before the voters in the spring would prohibit city officials from using further public funds to buy land, construct or operate the center.

The initiative, referendum and recall amendment to the D.C. Home Rule Charter was approved by city voters last November. There is still some question as to whether the conferendum, since the council has yet to pass enabling legislation for the amendment.

Phelan said, "Our attorneys feel that although the council has not yet passed legislation to implement the amendment, we are obeying the spirit of the law but we will have to go to court to get the issue settled."

The proposed convention center has the support of most city officials and the city's business community, but many civic groups around the District oppose construction of the center or at least want to be able to vote on the proposal themselves.

A Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has yet to give the go-ahead for the District to spend some $27 million in start-up funds to purchase a site for the project.

But Phelan said yesterday that even if Leahy's committee approves funds for buying the land, citizens could still disapprove some $50 million in construction of the center and that most of the opposition comes from the predominantly white and affluent Northwest residents in Ward 3. Center opponents, however, have challenged the findings of that poll.