More than 80 Falls Church residents turned out for a forum last week on whether to allow homeowners to convert empty rooms into apartments, a proposal that will be considered by the city council on Jan. 10.

Several people questioned whether the proposal could destroy the small-town atmosphere of the city.

"I think those who are knowledgeable about the idea support it," said Planning Commission Chairman Brian O'Connor. He predicted the commission would take a conservative approach and propose that the council allow the conversions only under a special use permit, retaining as much control as possible. "But I think the planning commission will support it because otherwise we will get illegal conversions, which tend to depress the neighborhood," O'Connor said.

Defenders of the concept, including women's groups and organizations of senior citizens, said the proposal could allow elderly residents to rent rooms to individuals who otherwise can't afford to live in the city, while providing the elderly with a source of income for maintaining large homes.

Restrictions under consideration include a requirement that the house be owner-occupied, to cut down on real estate speculation and vandalism, and that the rented apartment unit be smaller than the owner-occupied portion of the house. The council also is considering whether to specify what size homes could be converted. The ordinance would apply only to so-called "accessory dwellings"--units that have a separate entrance, kitchen and bath.