The pole is unsightly.

That, everyone agrees on. But the black creosoted pole -- tilting at a precarious angle smack in front of the Bethesda Metro Center -- sparked an extensive debate this month as the county and developers tried to determine who owns the pole, and, more importantly, who is going to pay the estimated $16,000 cost of removing it and relocating the wires it holds underground.

County planners maintained that the approved site plan for the Bethesda Metro Center, which still is under construction, stipulates that all utility wires be placed underground.

The developer, Rozansky & Kay Construction Co., argued that the pole belongs to the National Institutes of Health and carries closed-circuit-television wires. Thus, the developer argued, it does not own the pole and utility wires are not involved.

A National Institutes of Health official contacted this week said the federal agency was not aware of any controversy surrounding the pole. And besides, the institute rents it from the telephone company, he said.

"It goes in circles and circles," said Joseph L. Renzetti, project manager for Rozansky & Kay. On Wednesday Renzetti indicated that the developers are willing to settle the matter. "We think it is a bit unfair, but if push comes to shove -- yes, we'll foot the bill," he said.

At a meeting last week, the County Planning Board said that the pole must be removed at the expense of the developer.

"We felt there were other players involved who may be responsible," Renzetti said. "But the board doesn't quite see it that way."

T. Jacob Pearce, urban designer for the county, said his office first became aware this winter of the pole, which is on the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue directly in front of the Bethesda Metro Center. Pearce said the county notified the developer several months ago that the pole would have to go.

Rozansky & Kay "balked when they found out it would cost $16,000 to do what we asked," Pearce said. "They said the pole has obviously been there for years and wasn't their responsibility.

"The site plan [approved in 1981] does not have a specific statement about poles," he said. "But it does require that utilities be put underground, and this can be construed as a utility. Therefore, we believe that it is their responsibility in the end."

The pole carries closed-circuit-television wires to an NIH satellite office on Wisconsin Avenue from the institute's headquarters about a half a mile away, said NIH spokesman Dr. Edwin D. Becker. He said doctors in the satellite office use the television to monitor an epilepsy program conducted at the headquarters.

"Darned if I know much about" it, Becker said. "We lease from the telephone company, and I imagine they have the right of way. This is the first I've heard about it."

Renzetti said the developer will contact the NIH, county agencies and perhaps the telephone company to determine if they will contribute to the cost of removing the pole.

Pearce said the county has a new program that helps fund projects that make the county's streets more attractive, including putting utility wires underground. He said his office is trying to determine if the county program could be used to aid the developer.

"Of course, we would like to lessen the blow of the cost of putting it down," he said. "It's a lot of trouble for one pole, but everyone agrees it is a blight on the center." CAPTION: Picture, This pole may not look lick much, but getting rid of it would cost $16,000. By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post