When the red iridescent paint started showing up, marking trees in Sligo Creek Park for destruction, the telephone started ringing at the home of Rose Crenca. Community residents were seeking help from Crenca, then head of her civic association.

"We weren't going to let them do this," Crenca recalled of her 1972 confrontation with Montgomery County officials, who wanted to cut down trees to lay sewer pipes. Crenca, the consummate citizen activist, mobilized housewives willing to chain themselves to trees. Then she lined up TV news crews.

Also, she asked her father, a retired construction foreman, if he knew an alternative way to lay the sewer pipes. "Hell, yes," she remembers being his answer. "Use a front loader" -- a ditch-digging machine that would take a little longer than larger equipment but would save the trees.

"And that's what they did," said Crenca. "But you have to watch them. There's always somebody going to do something in a hurry."

Lessons learned long ago as a government outsider have shaped Crenca, 61, now president of the Montgomery County Council. She still has a flair for the dramatic, she retains an almost populist-style distrust of government, and she thinks that study and compromise are at the heart of good politicking.

But as Crenca nears the end of a generally successful year as council president, she finds herself bombarded with questions on whether she has sold out and become the ultimate insider after nine years on the council.

Crenca has been likened by some to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) for her folksy political style and grass-roots origin. Crenca's supporters credit her with an uncanny ability to get to the heart of issues and a manner that allows people to disagree with her bitterly but remain friends. Her critics contend that she sometimes trivializes issues by playing fast and loose with facts, and they accuse her of being too quick to compromise in the interests of maintaining good relations.

Ironically, the battleground for the conflict now surrounding Crenca is Silver Spring, where she chose to bring up her family and whose streets gave rise to her political success. More than any other council member, Crenca finds herself on the spot in a ferocious debate over plans for a large-scale redevelopment project for downtown Silver Spring. Her refusal to take an early stand in the debate has put her in the hot seat with some civic groups.

Crenca's dilemma was clearly drawn at a recent public hearing on County Executive Sidney Kramer's proposals for massive retail and office development. Residents of nearby neighborhoods who oppose the plan because of the intense traffic it would generate singled out Crenca.

The crowd that filled the Silver Spring auditorium stood en masse as a challenge was put to Crenca by Patricia Singer, a leading community activist: "You live in Silver Spring. We are looking to you for leadership . . . . We want to know. Will you stand with us now, when the stakes are this high, or what?"

Montgomery County Council member William E. Hanna Jr. said he has "never seen any more pressure brought upon someone than was brought upon her that night."

Crenca's noncommittal position has exasperated some Silver Spring activists, leading them to wonder publicly if she is being unduly influenced by Kramer or by county developers.

Joan Ennis, president of Allied Civic Group Inc., said that residents "find themselves increasingly concerned over Mrs. Crenca's failure to exert her usual conscientious leadership."

Crenca's supporters have reacted with anger. Detta Harding, a friend who met Crenca 23 years ago in a cake decorating class and has worked in all three of her council campaigns, said that those who are saying Crenca is in the hands of the developers do not know her: "No one thinks for Rose but Rose, and no one speaks for Rose but Rose."

For her part, Crenca said she is astonished by the nature of the criticism. She is not, she said, the development community's "favorite pinup girl," although she is on good terms with its members, who generallly describe her as fair and willing to listen. Crenca said she cannot understand the expectation that her mind should have been made up on Silver Spring before the County Council conducted its hearings and work sessions.

"She is torn," said Marilyn Ordway, Crenca's aide since her 1978 council election. "As a longtime civic activist in Silver Spring, she could not possibly have a point of view completely against them . . . yet she knows that Silver Spring needs something or it could go down the tubes."

John Delaney, an attorney with the influential firm of Linowes and Blocher, who said Crenca had taken him to the woodshed more than once, called her "a very bright, articulate woman" whose abilities are sometimes obscured by her "self-deprecating demeanor."

Some of those who have dealt with her in government say that Crenca is often underestimated, usually because of her homey, almost unsophisticated style. She tells rambling stories to make a point. She relates intricate financial issues to the economics of her sugar bowl.

She calls her six male colleagues her brothers, herself "Mother Crenca," and she is apt to preface her remarks with "I'm just a housewife, but . . . " -- a phrase that Ordway has tried to banish from Crenca's vocabulary.

How Crenca maneuvered her way to become council president last year is evidence of her political shrewdness and the tendency to underestimate her.

According to several sources -- and reluctantly confirmed by Crenca -- council members Neal Potter and Bruce Adams tried to talk her out of running. She said that Adams, a freshman council member, told her, "We will nominate you for vice president and Neal {Potter} for president, and if you serve well and if we agree, we will let you maybe be president next time."

Crenca, a council veteran, took affront at that offer from a newly elected member, and she rounded up four votes on the seven-member body for a plan that made her president.

"I was wrong," Adams said recently. Initially, Adams said, he had been concerned about whether Crenca could act as a spokeswoman for the council after playing a role as a battler for minority factions in her first two terms. "She has done a good job . . . . We have all come to respect her." Adams added that he would like to see Crenca's presidency extended.

"She's the best politician on the council," said Edmond F. Rovner, an aide to Kramer. "She grew up with all these brothers and she knows how to handle people . . . . She is someone not to be pushed around."

Born in Cleveland, Crenca grew up in Anacostia and graduated from Eastern High School. There were five sons and the one daughter in the Corrado family that Crenca describes as "Old World." Hard work was emphasized, and, Crenca said, "you were taught not to baby yourself . . . . If you broke your leg, you went to school on crutches."

When she and her husband James, both of whom had been living and teaching in Washington, decided to buy a house in 1957, it was next door to her parents' home on Flower Avenue in Silver Spring. Her mother died in 1983 and her father last month at age 91. Crenca had taken care of both.

Crenca, a graduate of American University with a master's degree in education from George Washington University, taught in District schools from 1947 to 1957. She stayed at home after her children were born.

"I regard being a mother as the most important part of my life," she said. She had several miscarriages; one daughter was born seriously retarded and died at age 7. A son and a daughter are grown.

She and her husband, an electronics engineer, initially joined their local civic organization because they saw their neighborhood being threatened by slipshod zoning. She became president of the Sligo-Branview Community Association, the first female president of Allied Civic Group, a self-taught expert in land use, and a constant presence at council meetings and Planning Board sessions.

During her activist days, her humor softened her approach and disarmed her opponents, but still some were concerned about the harshness of her views. "You could depend upon Rose to defend her white middle-class neighborhood against 'them' -- be it government or developers or intruders from D.C.," said one longtime observer of Silver Spring, which has become part of the county's most ethnically diverse section.

Crenca's stand on issues such as affordable housing have drawn what local NAACP Vice President Hanley J. Norment called "mixed reviews" in the black community.

In the $50,000-a-year job of council president, Crenca has helped to end the open warfare that had existed on the previous council and with the executive. She has controlled the council's agenda in a manner that observers say has allowed all points of view to be heard. "She's proved all the cynics wrong," said council member Michael L. Subin.

Crenca is seen by some as having gone too far in smoothing relations with the executive. "If I had a criticism, it's that Rose has been insufficiently independent of the executive," said Adams.

Two major areas of disagreement between Kramer and Crenca dealt with locating a county trash incinerator and reinstating the county's controversial program of transferable development rights. In both, Kramer's position prevailed. Crenca's vote to reinstate transferable development rights was particularly troublesome to civic activists who saw it as a repudiation of her previous position and a symbol of her growing acceptance in the development community.

"The key thing is that she was an outsider. Now, she is an insider," said former council member Scott Fosler. Ordway explained, "She used to think of herself as a housewife who also was on the council, but now she thinks of herself as an elected official, someone who can make a difference."

Crenca plays an important regional role as an officer of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and some ranking Democratic officials suggest she should be thinking of higher office. She has been approached by some to run against Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella, a possibility that Crenca said she is considering.

First, though, is Silver Spring.