For nearly 10 years, citizen groups in Montgomery County have fought off construction of major developments, claiming they would lead to the "Manhattanization" of their turf.

But early last week, the county planning board gave preliminary approval to three projects that would total almost 2 million square feet and cost $170 million -- about the size and price tag of New York's own World Trade Center.

The approval sparked anger and legal action by citizens in Friendship Heights, where the decision means a major complex including a hotel, offices, shops, a park and entertainment facilities may go ahead on the parking lot behind the Woodward and Lothrop department store at the corner of Western and Wisconsin avenues.

The Village of Chevy Chase, the Village of Friendship Heights and the Citizens' Coordinating Committee for Friendship Heights, an umbrella organization of 14 neighborhood groups, instructed their lawyers last week to file appeals in Montgomery County Circuit Court against the board's action.

In contrast to the controversy over the Friendship Heights development, community approval greeted the other two projects: an office building, shopping center, hotel and recreation area around the Metro station under construction in Bethesda and an office and commercial building on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

The Bethesda complex will be second only to the Pentagon in numbers of square feet in the Washington area. Although the projects will dramatically change the commercial districts of both communities, residents said they are happy with the design compromises they reached with architects, developers and the planning board.

Only a second public hearing on the details of the projects and final approval by the board stand in the way of ground breaking at the Bethesda and Silver Spring sites.

But the battle over the Friendship Heights development may be far from finished.

"I think it's important to realize that we look forward to seeing this site developed," said Eugene Miller, president of the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Friendship Heights.

But, he contended, the plans approved last week violate the county sector plan, a set of guidelines intended to settle the war between Montgomery citizens and developers during the construction boom that began a decade ago. The plan limits building heights, construction density and traffic allowances.

Many citizens' groups still consider the 1974 plan their bill of property rights be cause it permits extra zoning density only if a project includes an increased number of public amenities, such as fountains, parks and community recreation areas.

"We worked for three years to get the sector plan and three years litigating it," said Julie Davis, a Chevy Chase village council member. Now, she added, "It doesn't even look as if the developers read it."

Miller blamed the planning board for what he called the "inadequacies" of the development. "If the board had been sending loud signals to developers that the sector plan was going to be followed . . . then we wouldn't have to take taxpayers' money to go to court to make sure the sector plan is upheld," he said.

But Planning Board Chairman Norman Christellar counters civic group criticism, saying the board interprets the sector plan differently. "It's up to the courts to decide the proper interpretation," he said.

At emotionally charged public hearings a few days before the planning board vote, opponents of the Friendship Heights project argued that the proposed development violated almost every sector plan specification for that parcel.

The proposed office building would be 10 feet taller than the 90-foot limit, they said, and the total square footage of the site exceeded by 25 percent the sector plan allowance because the planning board and the developer, Quadrangle Co. of the District, neglected to count the space underground.

The development would generate 30 to 40 too many car trips a day near the site according to sector plan specifications, citizens argued, adding that the planned extension of Friendship Boulevard is unnecessary and would endanger a playground in the nearby Brookland neighborhood. Moreover, civic groups claimed, the complex would take up only one-third of the development's 7.9 acres, and this would allow the developers to double the size of the project should the county government ever alter or abolish the sector plan.

In a statement released after the planning board's vote last week, spokesman John Hoover said that the board dealt with most citizen concerns before okaying the Quadrangle proposal. It lopped 10 feet off the office building and inserted wording into the contract that forbids further development on the site until at least 1988. And in a controversial move, the board increased the number of car trips allowed for the site by "borrowing" a few from nearby parcels that are not as developed and do not generate as many car trips as they are allowed.

The board did not change plans for the extension of Friendship Heights Boulevard, however, sparking the Village of Friendship Heights appeal, according to village attorney Edward Genn.

But what most angered residents was the Quandgrangle plan for a 400-room hotel.

"There are hotels and there are hotels," said Davis. "If this hotel was in the District, it would be the eighth largest there. A huge banquet hall and a convention center are not a quiet little affair."

David Podolsky, the attorney for Chevy Chase village, said that the sector plan does not even allow for a hotel on the parcel.

Christellar said, however, that before the planning board gave its approval, board members asked Quadrangle to reduce the number of rooms in the hotel by 25. But, he stressed, a hotel on the site in no way violates the sector plan.

"The sector plan sets down examples for what might be developed on that parcel," Christellar said. "It says, for instance, that there can be so many feet of retail space and so many feet of office space.

"They are just examples," he added. "Just because it doesn't use a hotel as an example doesn't mean there can't be a hotel there."

The fate of the hotel rests on the decision of a special county appeals board, which by law must hear "special exceptions" to the sector plan. If the appeals board okays the hotel, the planning board can give the entire project a final seal of approval after a second hearing, during which Quadrangle will lay out all design details for last-minute checks.

Developers hope that the project can be completed by December 1983, just about the time the Friendship Heights Metro stop is scheduled to open.

But citizens' groups may very well put the brakes on this process. Many citizen activists point out that the last time civic groups brought the planning board to court -- a year and a half ago over the planned Metro building development across the street from the Woodies site -- they won the case.

Lawyers for both sides estimate that the case may be heard by the circuit court as early as September.

In the meantime, developers at the Silver Spring and Bethesda sites are moving their plans along with few snags.

"It's my opinion that the developers for the Bethesda project Rozansky and Kaye have been very solicitous of citizen concerns and want to be good neighbors," said Helen Blunt, president of the Bethesda Coalition, an umbrella group of citizen organizations in the area. Blunt added that to reach the current "happy compromise," citizens, the planning board and the developer negotiated for five years.

"We think the developers have added some very nice amenities," said Blunt, referring to the project's skating rink, fountains, and park and outdoor theater.

"It was a very complicated project but it worked out to the benefit of everybody because the citizens' concerns were seen in advance and worked out in advance," said planning board member Betty Ann Krahnke. She added that the sector plan that includes the Bethesda development site is "much more specific than the plan for the Friendship Heights parcel."

The development itself will include a 16-story Clark Enterprises Building for the Hyman Construction Co., a 400-room hotel and a 400,000-square-foot office building, with 60,000 square feet of the space planned for retail shops and restaurants.

"This project will drastically change Bethesda as we know it," Hoover said. "It will concentrate all activity to the downtown area."

Hoover added that the Silver Spring project -- one building with two floors of commerical shopping, three floors of parking and seven floors of offices -- also will change the commercial area of that town.

"Silver Spring is already rather blighted," he said. "The citizens have been active in trying to rehabilitate it. We hope that this building will get things moving."