A change in Montgomery County zoning procedures has thrown developers of some multimillion-dollar projects in downtown Bethesda into a design contest whose winners will be granted exclusive access to high-density zoning in the choice central business core.

Artistic designs, statues, botanical gardens, skating rinks and waterfalls adorn shimmering proposals now being filed with the county for towering hotel and office buildings. A state-hired arts consultant has been prodding each architect to include extensive public amenities in what one called a "high-stakes beauty pageant." Firms have spent thousands of dollars producing unusually detailed proposals for 10 sites, though many of the contestants themselves say they believe no more than seven will be approved.

"It's historic," said Harry W. Lerch, a real estate attorney handling one of the projects. "If this competition approach is successful, I would expect this would represent a wave of the future for urban planners.

"Bethesda has been my whole life, in terms of my career, and this is very exciting for me," Lerch said. "But it's also very scary."

The new zoning standards represent a radical change: County planners will judge all applicants who want to build projects within a restricted area -- in this case, the blocks surrounding the Metrorail station on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda -- by comparing plans simultaneously, rather than by evaluating each project separately, by county standards and on a first-come, first-served basis.

John L. Westbrook, head of urban design for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission said the county planning board will be judging which of the proposed high-rise projects will offer the most in public amenities in return for intensive zoning.

State planners and developers of offices, a hotel, apartments or condominiums and plaza-level shops and restaurants.

The county planners' "goal is to get as much specificity as they can to judge what they want to see developed," Kline said.

"The other side of that coin is that the developers don't want to make all of these specifics at this time.... [The proposal] represents a fixed commitment that takes away some of your flexibility later on. Most of us aren't thinking yet about what kind of handles go on the door, what kind of tile goes on the floor or what kind of wood we'll use for the benches," he said.

State officials said the government finally has developed a fair method to harness development for the public good. "What we're trying agree that what is happening in Bethesda points up the essential struggle between government control and free enterprise.

Some applicants said the county Planning Board has created a process that locks developers into overly specific plans in the early stages in the development process. And they complain that the kind of planning that meets the county planners' requests is expensive -- several say they have spent from $50,000 to $200,000 on these projects. None is assured approval.

"What is being requested now is not normally requested until the site-plan phase, the fine-tuning," said Jody Kline, an attorney for Sunnyside Associates, a partnership between Safeway Stores Inc. and Ralph Brown Buick. That proposal seeks zoning approval for a complex to do in Montgomery County is preserve the quality of life," Westbrook said. "The public good has two parts. Looked at in its simplest terms, it's the balance between protection of the evironment and economic growth. More and more, we're facing the job of balancing limited resources and providing for growth."

He said the new comparison process, approved by the county council last November, protects builders who are willing to produce what they promise from being edged out by proposals that, while they might be immaginative in concept, may not pan out.

"We're saying you don't have to do anything," said Westbrook, who drew up the comparison process. "But if you want us to judge it, it has to be real, not theoretical.... We need enough detail to show us exactly what they're offering.

"This hasn't come about only for [planners]," he said. "There are some developers who say 'We're serious about this stuff. We're willing to put it on paper. What about these others who are just talking about ideas?'"

The county council last November opened up comparative applications for the first time when it adopted both a new development plan for downtown Bethesda and the new comparative zoning application procedure.

That ended a freeze on higher-density zoning exceptions that had been in place since 1980, Westbrook said. That's when the planning commission finished a study of approximately a five-block stretch along

Wisconsin Avenue, with the subway station in its midst at the intersection with Old Georgetown Road.

The commission found that high-rise building in Bethesda had reached a 3-million-square-foot limit set in 1976. That meant, according to a sector plan set in 1976, that officials were required to reassess traffic capacity before any more higher-denisity buildings could be approved under what is called the optional method plan.

Westbrook said planners decided that roads from the downtown area could accommodate no more than 1,675 "trips" going home from work. Last November, when the county council adopted a revised plan, it determined that construction of high-rise, high-density office and residential buildings around the Metro stop would have to be limited by traffic constraints.

That's when the council also wrote into the zoning laws, on the recommendation of the county planning board, a procedure for holding comparative applications for intensive-use proposals, Westbrook said.

Until then, each request for special zoning was matched against county standards for public use, and was granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

On Feb. 8, the planning commission ended a three-month application period, and received 10 site plans that would call for more than 2,400 afternoon rush-hour trips coming from the downtown Bethesda area. In public hearings from April 14 to May 17, Westbrook said, the county planning commission will consider how well each proposal performs in offering residential units, providing "enrichment of the pedestrian environment," creating a "visually and functionally effective environment," and offering management for maintainence, security and out-door activities programming.

David Fogle, a University of Maryland urban planning professor and member of the American Planners Association, said Bethesda has been a victim of "building chaos," and added that he thinks the comparative method seems to offer planners a way to define high-rise development there.

"Bethesda is one of the disasters of the mid-20th century, when you consider the possibilities that were there," he said. Ending years of unstructured growth "by whatever means seems okay," he said.

Westbrook, who helped create and was the first chief of Baltimore's urban design department preceding the development of Harborplace, said he has devoted his career to bringing to the cities a cultural renaissance through urban design.

On a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the park and planning commission, Westbrook said, he has toured city centers from Pioneer Square in Seattle to Rockefeller Center in New York, studying various planning practices that produced various esthetic effects.

But the method for developing the area around Bethesda's subway station, he insists, is "like nothing I've ever seen."

"We have the most innovative zoning tools to weigh and balance the different resources," he said. "We look collectively, not at isolated cases. That is what is unique. That is what has never been done before."

Plans for the area around Bethesda's subway stop call for 12- and 17-story hotels and offices with an atrium, a market place with roll-up glass fronts similar to Harborplace, a plaza designed for outdoor festivals rung with banners and lights, with a waterfall tumbling down beside an escalator that descends to an underground bus station.

"Everyone is put on the face of this earth for a purpose," he said. "I honestly believe that if I were to die, creation of the Metro center there would be that purpose for me. My life will have been worthwhile."