The 1987 Volvo station wagon pulled up to the curb on leafy Old Stage Road in North Bethesda. Out stepped a middle-aged man with red hair, and what he did next amazed witnesses in a suburb where public protest is as much a part of life as mowing the lawn:

He pulled up a yard sign that read "Stop the Montrose Parkway," tossed it into the back of his car and drove off. As the hour approached 10 p.m., he cruised the quiet streets, stopped in front of several more homes and did the same thing.

The man was Edward L. Bednarz, senior vice president and associate general counsel of Marriott International Inc., a company that would very much like to see the Montrose Parkway built.

By the time he finished Wednesday evening, he had, by his own count, as many as seven signs stacked in the back of his Volvo. North Bethesda residents say the number was closer to 20, but no matter how many are missing they are gone for good: Bednarz admits to throwing them into a trash bin on his way home to Silver Spring.

"This man should be cited in some way," said Laura Richardson, who hopped into her Saturn and followed Bednarz before reporting him to police the next day. "I want to make sure that Marriott does not stoop to these actions again. It's shocking that a corporation of their size would do this."

Bednarz, a Marriott executive for 26 years, denied he was acting on behalf of his company and said he broke no laws in plucking signs he contends were placed on public property. "Ms. Richardson is a liar," he said. "You can quote me."

As with most things in Montgomery, the alleged yard-sign thievery is more complex than it appears. The case spotlights a beleaguered neighborhood seeking leverage to fight several huge public works projects and a controversial corporate giant that recently received the largest economic incentive in Maryland history for staying in Montgomery at a location near Old Stage Road.

Comfortably middle-class North Bethesda also is planned to host a conference center and a performing arts arena, producing opposition groups so committed that members think nothing of following strangers in the dark of night.

The rapid development of this area just outside the Capital Beltway comes as the crowded inner suburbs fill up and new projects push farther north into Montgomery.

"North Bethesda is being bombarded," said Karen Kuker-Kihl, a neighborhood activist.

The $63 million Montrose Parkway project--which calls for widening Montrose Road and adding more than a mile of pavement to link Interstate 270 and Rockville Pike--would destroy up to five North Bethesda homes. Once envisioned as part of an "Outer Beltway," the parkway is among the most loathed road projects in Montgomery, though some residents say it offers the only solution to mounting traffic congestion in the area.

But Marriott has two reasons to support the parkway. The hotel and hospitality company has a lucrative agreement to operate Montgomery's publicly financed conference center along Rockville Pike, which would be better served by a parkway.

The company also is deciding whether to move its headquarters a few miles north of its current site at the junction of I-270 and the Beltway or to expand at the same location. Marriott employees and visitors would have a quicker trip to either site via a Montrose Parkway.

So when a senior executive is found cruising in the darkness with a back seat full of "Stop the Montrose Parkway" signs, the vivid conspiracy theories that often arise during public hearings and in community meetings gather force.

"We didn't appreciate him coming into our neighborhood, some high-powered lawyer from Marriott, and having him take down our most visible means of opposition," said Marta Vogel, head of the Montrose Parkway Alternatives Coalition.

The incident started at about 9 p.m. when Bednarz drove to the neighborhood where he had lived for 20 years and began removing the white signs with red lettering. He said that his motivation was personal and that he acted "on behalf of residents who needed my help."

Property records show that Bednarz's former wife owns a home on Old Stage Road. The signs, he said, were placed on the county-owned grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk.

"I no more trespassed in removing them than they trespassed in the first place in putting them there," Bednarz said.

Richardson said she spotted Bednarz about 9:15 p.m. removing a sign from in front of her neighbor's house. She jumped into her gold-colored Saturn and tailed Bednarz, eventually confronting him in a cul-de-sac. Richardson jotted down his license plate and called police the next day. She has not decided whether to press charges, such as theft and trespassing.

Marriott, meanwhile, has little to say.

"It was a personal incident involving purely personal issues," said Tom Marder, a corporate spokesman. "If given an opportunity, he probably would have done things differently."

CAPTION: Marta Vogel, of North Bethesda, is head of a group opposing the Montrose Parkway project.