The Montgomery County Council voted yesterday to lift longstanding development limits on Silver Spring, opening the way for construction of a major regional shopping mall and office and residential projects that will alter the skyline and traffic flow of the redeveloping downtown.

The strongly debated 4-to-3 vote by the council will add substantially to the commercial growth that has already made Silver Spring a hub for office construction in the eastern county.

Also, the move is expected to influence strongly the future of neighborhoods and business districts in the area.

Civic groups have predicted that markedly increased development will choke downtown Silver Spring and surrounding neighborhoods with traffic, while supporters have said that lifting the growth ceiling is crucial to a meaningful redevelopment to make Silver Spring a vibrant downtown, with a strong residential and retail presence.

The council, after months of study and debate, voted yesterday to lift the development ceiling by allowing the addition of 11,250 jobs to the downtown area, more than double the 4,700 allowed under current regulations.

The action, combined with previous approvals of new office projects, enables Silver Spring to become more of a major employment and retail center.

An estimated 25,000 people already work in downtown, and 7,500 more will be employed in already-approved buildings. The council action allows total employment to rise to 43,750.

The substantial increase in the job limits, which are designed to curb commercial growth and traffic, allow for development of a $250 million regional mall and office complex proposed by developer Lloyd Moore on a seven-acre site now occupied by a small shopping center at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road.

It also enables the conversion of the former Hecht Co. property into a retail mall, allows the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to relocate several thousand employes there, and allows for much of the other proposed development in downtown Silver Spring.

The job ceiling adopted yesterday was substantially less than the 15,000 jobs first proposed by County Executive Sidney Kramer, who later reduced his recommendation to 13,500. But Kramer said last night he felt "great" about the council's action. Kramer had made Silver Spring revitalization a priority of his administration, pumping in millions of dollars worth of public improvements and taking the politically risky stand of favoring increased development.

Kramer's development plans appeared doomed just a week ago, when four of the seven council members tentatively favored job limits between 8,500 and 9,500. But Kramer said last night that the council's raising of the job ceiling "means we can now move forward in the redevelopment of Silver Spring in a reasoned and orderly fashion."

Council President Rose Crenca, a Silver Spring resident who was a key to the council decision, yesterday delivered the swing vote for increased development. Crenca, who last week favored 9,500 jobs, portrayed the 11,250 figure as a "compromise." Joining her were council members Michael L. Gudis, William E. Hanna Jr. and Michael L. Subin.

Council member Bruce Adams, who favored a lower job ceiling along with Neal Potter and Isiah Leggett, denounced the 11,250 figure as "a blank check ratification of {everything} the developers have asked for." He said residents across the county should pay attention because the council was setting a "dangerous precedent" by gutting development controls in response to builder demands.

Crenca countered that the debate had nothing to do with growth versus antigrowth forces but was about the "death and life of Silver Spring and what we can do about it." In a rambling and sometimes touching speech, Crenca said the issue "is very personal to me . . . . It's my home."

Crenca's position angered members of the Silver Spring-Takoma Traffic Coalition, which spearheaded residents' opposition to Kramer's plan. Patricia Singer, president of the group, said that Crenca "really let Silver Spring down . . . . She made her choice. She's no longer a Silver Spring activist."

Singer suggested that Crenca was more interested in advancing her possible candidacy for the 8th District congressional seat than in her home town and that she may need the campaign contributions that major developers could provide. Also, Singer said the coalition has consulted a lawyer about possibly filing a lawsuit.

Yesterday's council action included approval for 3,000 housing units in the Silver Spring downtown. Various developers have proposed residential development there.

Dozens of Silver Spring residents, wearing buttons and ribbons, watched the council yesterday, displaying their viewpoints in the controversy that has preoccupied the community of 54,000.

In the weeks leading up to yesterday's vote, more than 3,000 letters flooded the council offices, with 66 percent opposing Kramer's plans and 34 percent in support.

Council staff members said they could not estimate the number of calls, which tied up their phone lines and time for much of last week.

There was general agreement in the community and within government that Silver Spring needed to be revitalized, but there was sharp disagreement on the size and shape of development.

The downtown was once a premier shopping area of suburban Washington, but it fell on hard times in the 1960s when its vitality and business were sapped by the opening of malls with plentiful parking farther out in suburbia.

The subway and the economic prodding of the county government have helped Silver Spring, currently undergoing a construction boom of office space, much of it still unleased.

But the key to meaningful renewal was seen as attracting stores and other businesses -- as well as housing. Until recently, however, there was little interest by developers in such projects.

That changed when Moore, a pioneer in Silver Spring's rebuilding, assembled control over seven acres of prime downtown real estate and proposed construction of a mall with two major department stores, several office towers, a hotel and residential units. The Rouse Co., developers of Baltimore's Harbor Place, has expressed interest in participating in the project.

But Moore's project as well as other major developments could not proceed, until now, because of county limits on development that prevent approval of any development unless there are adequate public facilities such as roads to support it.

Moore's plan alone requires between 5,400 and 6,400 jobs, while the proposal for the Hecht site needs about 1,100 and a plan for relocating offices of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration needs about 3,100 jobs.

Calling Moore's proposal, with the reported interest of two major department stores, "a window of opportunity" for Silver Spring, Kramer presented an ambitious plan to the council that included new ways to measure traffic to allow increased development. Kramer's plan would count traffic throughout the central business district, rather than just at various critical intersections, and the establishment of Silver Spring as a special transportation management district to encourage mass transit use and car-pooling.

While the idea of the plan received support, there were widespread concerns that the executive was overestimating its effectiveness while playing down its costs.

Initial opposition to Moore's plans had centered on his plan to demolish what some experts say are such architecturally significant Art Deco buildings as the Silver Theatre and the Silver Spring Shopping Center. However, as citizens groups over the summer studied Kramer's specific plans, the focus quickly shifted to traffic.

Kramer and his staff clearly were not prepared for the intensity of the opposition or its ability to pick apart the engineering intricacies of its plans.