It seemed a simple enough suggestion when it was made 10 years ago: to upgrade the energy I efficiency of each house in Greenbelt Homes, the development owned by residents of the planned community that comprises much of the City of Greenbelt. But as the corporation finally begins an expensive rehabilitation project, the debate has expanded well beyond the pros and cons of electric heating systems into fundamental social and political issues.

"Rehab," as the project is called by residents, will result in major, mostly energy efficient, changes inside and outside the community's 1,600 homes.

And over the next three decades, residents must repay the $20 million the corporation, Greenbelt Homes Inc., borrowed to do the work. Not only the 301 corporation members who voted for rehabilitation last year will have to make these changes to their houses, but so will the 211 who voted against it at a membership meeting and the more than 1,000 who didn't vote at all.

The money, borrowed from the the National Consumer Cooperative Bank and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will pay for converting every unit from oil to electric heat, installing new windows in all houses, installing shingles and sidings on frame houses, and doing other renovations and repairs where needed.

Corporation officials say that with the rehabilitation, members' monthly charges, which average between $150 and $250 and which previously included heating costs, will not change significantly: the savings made by conversion to electric heat will be enough to pay back the loan. Members, however, will be billed for whatever it costs them to heat their homes electrically, which officials estimate at about $30 a month.

Never has the corporation undertaken such a major project, and in a community where everything is traditionally debated at length, "rehab" has become the subject of the biggest debate ever. Yellowed contracts are pulled from dusty shelves as residents search for the true meaning of vague phrases like "mutual housing" and "cooperative," and try to stake out the narrow line between individual rights and ownership, and the authority of Greenbelt Homes Inc.

Ghosts of New Dealers such as Rexford G. Tugwell, who set the Greenbelt plan in motion, are summoned to explain what Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind as the then-unique planned community was constructed on a ridge above worn-out tobacco fields almost 50 years ago: to provide work and inexpensive housing during Depression-era hardships.

Longtime Greenbelt resident Benjamin Abramowitz, who says his house already is in perfect condition, charges that "individual rights" are being infringed upon. He has changed the locks on his doors, spoken repeatedly at meetings, circulated petitions, and distributed literature suggesting that electric heating is unsafe.

Now, convinced that a lawsuit is the only way to make sense of bylaws and contracts that have changed through the years, he is looking for lawyers willing to bring a class action suit against the corporation.

Greenbelt never was meant to be a cooperative, argues Abramowitz, but "co-op cultists" have slipped the word into literature and contracts by subterfuge. Greenbelt is merely "mutual housing," something similar to a condominium arrangement, he says.

Since 1956, when residents who had rented from the federal government formed a corporation and collectively bought their homes, members of the elected board of directors and the appointed manager have changed many times. New residents have moved in and homes have changed hands. At the same time, the wording of contracts outlining the relationship between the members and the corporation was changed.

Indeed, Abramowitz's contract, which is one of the original contracts made in 1956 when residents purchased their homes from the federal government, does not mention the word "cooperative" at all, although it does describe the community as "mutual housing." Contracts now being issued describe the corporation as a "cooperative housing endeavor" in the first sentence, and corporation officials say this is what Greenbelt was meant to be.

"They are ideologists," Abramowitz counters. "They became more concerned with advancing the ideology than with what corporation members wanted."

"They are trying to make it into a co-op but it's not--it's mutual housing," agrees Abramowitz's neighbor, Elsie Morren. To preserve what she believes is private property, she has changed the locks on her doors, withheld monthly maintenance payments to the corporation for four months, and vowed to fight rehabilitation.

"As far as I'm concerned, no loan has been taken out on my home," she adds. "I'm not getting it (electric heat). I don't want it because I don't need it."

Morren and Abramowitz say they own their own homes, and that the corporation holds the deed as a "symbol" only. Like many other residents, they burned their mortgages several years ago when they were paid off and cannot understand how the corporation can take out new loans against their homes.

Dee and George Ronchi believed they owned their own home--until rehabilitation began. Now they are worried that the new mortgage on their house will make it impossible to sell.

"Now you are a prisoner in your own place and you have to stay here until you die," George Ronchi said.

Greg Shannon, manager of Nyman Realty in Greenbelt, which makes about 90 percent of the real-estate sales there, says the loan will not make it more difficult to sell homes and, in the long term, rehabilitation costs will be surpassed by resulting increases in property value.

Corporation officials estimate residents will save between 50 percent and 60 percent on heating costs, and will avoid the cost of replacing the aging oil heating system. Although residents will be paying back the loans through their fees, this will be offset by lower energy costs, according to the corporation's general manager, Timothy C. Mitter.

He attributes the objections to fear of change. Dennis E. Lewis, the corporation's coordinator of member services, spent two hours recently persuading one resident that conversion to electric heat was a good idea.

That man, who asked not to be named because controversy over the change still raged on his block, said he is now happy with his electric heat, which has been installed for two weeks.

"The majority definitely wants 'rehab,' " said Janet James, a former board member and community activist. Those who oppose it, she said, "have believed wild stories that aren't true. I can't understand why anyone doesn't want it."

But even some of those who do want electric heat say they are unhappy with the way the corporation has gone about it.

"My big objection is the way it's been handled," said Joseph D. Comproni, a former board member and manager of the Greenbelt Credit Union, an independent cooperative organization. "This lack of options is the most difficult to accept."

All homes must convert to the same type of electric heat and install the same type of storm window and siding. The corporation management wanted to dictate the color of houses, but was defeated by one vote at a board meeting last summer.

Although Comproni believes that "mutual housing" means that the majority can dictate things like the rehabilitation project, "in the early days there was more of a spirit of cooperation. If we had done this in the early days of the co-op, the board and managers would have leaned over backwards to please. Now they're more autocratic, more of a bureaucracy. There's less desire to accommodate."

Corporation president James W. Smith says this is part of belonging to a cooperative.

"There have always been members who would like to be more individualist than is allowable," he said. "The board has to take a fairly hard stand. We have a cooperative responsibility, and we have to decide how to do it best for the entire corporation."

So far, 18 of the corporation's 1,571 homes have requested exemption from the plan. Each of the 14 requests so far considered has been turned down. "When it gets down to the basics," Mitter said, "how much discretion can you give someone when we have the responsibilty for making sure it gets done right?"

Smith says the corporation must look out not only for present members, but also for future members. "We have some responsibility to make sure that the house is heated for the average occupant, and not the one who's there now," he said.

One corporation bulletin outlining the rehabilitation scheme advises residents that the corporation has responsibility for heating and maintenance and that the rehabilitation "was overwhelmingly approved at a membership meeting." Members who "object to rehabilitation on their homes should be aware that obstruction of the 'rehab' program would be a violation of their contract."

But Comproni says that under the terms of the original contracts, still held by many of the older residents, taking out loans against their homes is expressly forbidden. Furthermore, he says, the 301-to-211 vote that approved rehabilitation in March 1981 was not the two-thirds majority required by bylaws.

Two years earlier, the law firm of Krooth and Altman, which represents the corporation, advised the board of directors that, to avoid possible legal action, the final rehabilitation plan should be approved by a two-thirds vote. The final decision was made with 40 votes fewer than a two-thirds majority.

Comproni says such problems will continue until members take an active part in the cooperative. "Over time, interest in the co-op has waned, and the power up in Hamilton Place (where the corporation's board of directors meets and the manager has his office) has increased," he said. Members have allowed a management system to develop without their control, he said. "We can control it, quite frankly," he said, "if the members ever got up on their hind legs."