Residents of Parkside apartments in Bethesda who are waging a legal fight with the developer of their condominium complex have won a key procedural victory in court that significantly broadens Maryland's consumer protection act.

In an opinion released this week, Circuit Court Judge Irma C. Raker ruled that the consumer protection law is governed by a 12-year statute of limitations instead of the three-year limitation that normally applies in civil cases.

The ruling, only the second time the issue has been addressed by a Maryland Court, means that consumers have significantly more time to file legal actions against individuals who engage in false or deceptive trade practices, said lawyer Ralph E. Hall Jr., who represents Parkside residents.

"It's a very important ruling," said Caroline Rodis, an attorney in the Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Office.

"Consumer protection acts are . . . for people who may not know about their rights" or often do not discover they have been defrauded until years afterward, she said.

More than 460 Parkside residents are plantiffs in a $75 million law suit that was filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court last June, charging the developers who converted the complex with breach of contract and deceptive trade practices.

The procedural victory came on a motion to dismissed the suit that had been filed by attorneys representing Gary and Scott Nordheimer and Myer Feldman, who are managing partners of Parkside Associates, the developer.

Defense attorneys, who declined to comment on the opinion, asserted that residents had failed to meet the three-year statute of limitations when they filed a suit last year over actions that allegedly occurred in 1980.

Normally, civil suits must be filed in court within three years of date the disputed action takes place. But Raker ruled that the state consumer protection statute falls into a special category of law governed by a 12-year limit.

She dismissed the motion and ordered the two parties to continue with legal discovery in the case. A trial is set for July.

The suit charges that the developer failed to act diligently on an agreement that could have saved Parkside tenants hundreds of dollars on the purchase of their units during the conversion. The suit also charges that developers engaged in deceptive trade practices by making promises they knew they could not keep.