A dispute over the fine points of urban design has further delayed construction of a controversial 13-story office, retail and bus complex over the Friendship Heights subway station.

Montgomery County planning officials, who regard the building as a key to improving a densely developed commercial area, say the proposed design does not provide esthetically pleasing public space and enough pedestrian pathways. But the site's prime developer, the Chevy Chase Land Co., counters that country bureaucrats are unfairly and expensively reopening issues settled in principle last year.

The site in question covers 60,000 square feet on the northeast corner of the Wisconsin and Western avenues intersection. It now contains a fenced-off Metro bus station, which once received streetcars rolling out from the District.

Under the Chevy Chase proposal, first made two years ago in partnership with Metro, the ground level of the complex would contain a Metro bus terminal, with stores and public malls of floors two and possibly three, and offices on all stories above. A Metro station, scheduled to open as part of the Red Line extension late in 1983, would feed passengers on escalators up into the complex, making it a sort of civic gateway to what is now the second densest corner of Montgomery County after Silver Spring.

County officials have met repeatedly with the developer in late-night horse-trading sessions this month, poring over basic considerations such as whether the bus terminal should be inside the building or on the streets outside.

The debate is an outgrowth of an landmark zoning battle that erupted in Friendship Heights in the early 1970s as citizens became concerned over creeping "Manhattanization" in the area. A battery of lawsuits succeeded in downzoning much of the area but did not stop the course of development.

The Metro building is by no means the only new one planned. Woodward & Lothrop several weeks ago submitted initial plans for an eight-story office building and nine-story luxury hotel to stand on the parking lot behind its store. Public hearings are scheduled to begin May 21.

County officials such as John Westbrook of the planning board's Urban Design Division argue that the rapid development of Friendship Heights has left it with no "sense of place." It is just a jumble of concrete, store windows and traffic arteries. Efforts to create for the neighborhood a coherent and pleasing uban identity, they say, are behind the current dispute over the Metro building.

Permission to proceed with development never comes easily in Montgomery County. But this site in particular has emerged as a textbook case of "paralysis by analysis," the bureaucratic affliction often called endemic among the county's highly educated citizenry.

This is partly due to its peculiar border location and multiple ownership. The D.C. government has jurisdiction over Western Avenue, the State of Maryland over Wisconsin Avenue and the county over Wisconsin circle, which enclosed the plot against the other two roadways. Because of traffic flow to and from whatever is put there, each of these governments get a say.

When the land company and Metro began their application two years ago, they sought to use special regulations that allow developers to double the floor space allowed under their land's current zoning if they can show county planners that they will provide sufficient "public amenity" to offset the increased density.

In brief, this meant an creating an esthetically appealing public environment with pedestrian pathways and space for such things as fountains, benches and leisurely strolls by local citizens. Ideally the space would emerge as a sort of "neighborhood living room."

County planners approved their application, but the plan was overturned last summer by a judge. Ruling on a suit filed by civic groups, he declared the 32,000 square feet of retail space propsed for the second and third floors had excessively overstepped a Friendship Heights central plan guideline of 16,000 square feet. He also questioned whether the plan had been scrutinized properly.

Go back and apply all over again, the developers were told.

Chevy Chase Land took that decision to men the plan was acceptable if the retail space was reduced accordingly. This it did in a new design submitted in November last year. But staff members at the planning board felt the way in which the retail space was eliminated seriously undercut the "public amenity," putting the entire project into question.

Halving the shop space, planners now argued, would reduce the mall's ability to draw people in to make use of the amenity. They also criticized the new design's smaller, less imposing volume of public space, saying Metro passengers ascending the escalators should feel true sense of arrival, as travelers at New York's Grand Central Station do on stepping into the main hall.

"Every time you turn around they're proposing . . . a multimillion dollar change," complained Chuck Dalrymple, attorney for Chevy Chase Land. d