Silver Spring civic groups are mounting a vigorous opposition to two separate multistory apartment complexes proposed as housing for the elderly, arguing that the massive structures will "overpower" nearby single-family homes and dramatically alter the character of their older residential neighborhoods.

In one of the cases, CEH Partnership has applied for a special exception to allow it to build Ellsworth House -- a four- to seven-story condominium complex on the fringes of Silver Spring's central business district and adjacent to one of the county's oldest and most stable single-family communities.

The second proposal -- put forward by Oxford Corp. -- calls for a five- to seven-story apartment building for elderly residents on a 4.19-acre site at the intersection of 16th and Second streets on the northern edge of the central business district.

The Oxford Corp. proposal went to the Montgomery County Zoning Appeals Board Aug. 19, after it got the green light from the planning board when the developers agreed to eliminate one story, add more landscaping and push the building's facade farther away from existing homes. However, a zoning hearing examiner recommended denial, saying the project was incompatible with the neighborhood. A final ruling is expected within the next two weeks.

At another meeting last week, the Montgomery County Planning Board reluctantly denied a special exception zoning request for Ellsworth House on Colesville Road. In its decision, the board said the location -- an easy walk to downtown Silver Spring, a library, doctors' offices and accessible to both bus and Metrorail -- is ideal for senior citizens but that the sheer bulk of the proposed structure would make it incompatible with the two- and three-story homes nearby.

The staff report said the proposed structure on 2.3 acres, with single-family homes on one side and county parkland and a library and the business district on the other, "provides too abrupt of a change" from the central business district to the adjacent single-family neighborhoods.

"There are many positive elements to support housing for the elderly here, . . . " said Dennis Canavan, of the planning board's staff. "But the critical element is the bulk of the building, not only its height but the length and width 258 feet by 258 feet that concern us." The planning board agreed and the proposal went to the county's Zoning Appeals Board Sept. 19, where a decision is expected within a month.

Donald E. Tucker, president of ECO Corp., one of three partners in the CEH joint venture, said in an interview this week, "It's pretty obvious we're going to have to reduce the number of units if we want to get approval." He said it might then be necessary to cut operational costs by offering only a cafeteria-style, light meals rather than the full-dinner option originally planned for condo owners.

Citing the critical need for elderly housing in Montgomery's rapidly graying Southeast quadrant, developers of both projects used a zoning law that allows them to apply for special exceptions with greater building densities for elderly housing. The law was passed in the early 1970s to encourage developers to build housing for the elderly, but there is no guarantee that such proposals will be approved, Canavan said.

"The 1980 census data indicates that there are about 6,000 households east of Rock Creek Park in Silver Spring where the head of household is 65 or older," Tucker said. Of 100 senior citizens randomly selected by CEH for telephone interviews, 81 percent said they wanted to retire in Silver Spring, Tucker said. Twenty-seven percent said the ownership concept at Ellsworth House, combined with optional meal, laundry, and housekeeping services and free nutrition and exercise clinics, appealed to them more than a rental development or a nursing home.

But many of the people who spoke against the Ellsworth House proposal at last week's meeting were themselves 30-year residents of Silver Spring and the type of resident described as potential tenants. Many said they could not afford what they called a luxury condominium and questioned the need for so many two-bedroom units in the 110-unit complex.

"We feel this is just a ruse to get a high-class condo into a very-desirable neighborhood," said one resident, David C. Karlson.

William Kaupert, president of the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association, said approval of the special exception would set a "dangerous precedent" and lead to rezoning of other residential tracts in the area.

"The Silver Spring library was built in 1957, and we were assured that it would stand as a buffer. . . . To build an apartment house on the residential side of that buffer would directly contravene and nullify that agreement," Kaupert said.

"Compatibility is really the only issue," Tucker said in a telephone interview later. "By law, no one under 62 can live at Ellsworth House, so the complex is not a guise for anything." Under the present proposal, prices for one-bedroom apartments would start at about $52,000 for the 14 subsidized units required by county law, go to about $80,000 for a 700-square-foot one-bedroom, and peak at about $120,000 for the largest one bedroom with den, he said.

Monthly condo fees covering maintenance and security will range from $140 to $210 and include emergency call boxes in bathrooms and bedrooms and a free "wellness" clinic four days a week. Meals, housekeeping and laundry services will be available for additional fees.

The concept is almost identical to the 134-unit Thoreau House in Reston, also developed by CEH, which is 95 percent built and 50 percent sold, Tucker said. "The typical buyer in both developments is a widow about 72 years old. . . . We want to provide the environment and back-up services so an elderly person can live independently for as long as possible."

"We definitely have a substantial elderly population in Silver Spring," said Nancy Floreene, an attorney representing residents opposed to the 152-unit Oxford Corp. complex. "The civic associations are not arguing against the concept of building for this age group, but against large-scale designs in residential areas."

Floreene said it "was absolutely incomprehensible" that the planning board would recommend turning down zoning for Ellsworth House while giving the green light to the project at 16th and Second streets.

"We have maintained that this is actually a much worse building and location," she said. "There are no sidewalks and, unlike Ellsworth House, it is not accessible to anything without driving or getting on a bus. . . . For the elderly, a Ride-On bus means little."

The site at 16th Street is about double the size of CEH's 2.3 acre-site, but Floreene said residents near Noyes Lane and Second Street still find the building "massive and visually offensive" despite the larger land area around it.