Officials at three private schools in Bethesda are joining nearby residents to oppose the proposed development of a 16-acre tract wedged between Old Georgetown Road and the Capital Beltway north of the National Institutes of Health into either a group of luxury town houses, a 240-unit high-rise apartment tower for the elderly or a combination the two.

The French International School, St. Jane de Chantal School and the Bethesda Country Day School oppose the project, saying that increased traffic would overburden roads and pose a safety problem for about 1,000 school children walking or being bused to the schools.

Managers of the proposed project said few new trips would be generated by elderly residents or town-house owners during the morning rush hours, adding that parents dropping off their children at the schools account for more than 300 of the cars in the area each day.

The Montgomery County Planning Board gave preliminary approval last week for the plans submitted by the Hadid Investment Group to develop the tract. But the board acknowledged nearby residents' traffic concerns, saying a new access road into the project from Old Georgetown Road must be completed before any of the units can be occupied.

The planners also told the developers that Montgomery Drive must be upgraded and widened from Beech Avenue to the entrance of the town house project, so that traffic can be more easily funneled to the town houses through the existing single-family community of Maplewood.

Daniel D. Stoner, president of the Maplewood Citizens Association, which represents about 300 of the 800 homeowners in the area, said his group "could probably live with a nice town-house development," but is adamantly opposed to a high-rise complex for the elderly.

Msgr. Martin W. Christopher, pastor at St. Jane de Chantal Church and school, said "traffic and the safety of the children are our concerns. We have nothing against housing for the elderly, but we do object to plush, plush condominiums."

France Ponsart, business manager for the French School, said, "Our concerns are the same as the neighborhood association's. Because of existing traffic concerns, we are required to bus at least 25 percent of our children if we want to operate the school."

Stoner and others voiced concern that building the housing project for the elderly would soon make the the neighborhood resemble nearby Pooks Hill at Wisconsin and the Beltway, where the 1,071-unit Promenade Condominium complex, several smaller apartment communities and the 350-room Linden Hill Hotel and Tennis Complex dominate the landscape behind the Pooks Hill Marriott.

"The Pooks Hill development is relatively isolated on the other side of the hill. But we don't want this kind of high-rise community to spread over here . . . . We don't want another Rockville Pike on Old Georgetown Road," Stoner said.

Both Mohamed Hadid, the developer who purchased the Bell tract from the Bell brothers last November for $5 million, and Robert L. Mitchell, president of C.I./Mitchell & Best Co., who is working with Hadid, said they are waiting for the results of a market survey before deciding whether to build the 240 apartments for the elderly.

If the market survey shows enough potential buyers within an eight-to-10-mile radius of the north Bethesda site, the developers said they would apply for a special exception that would allow them the increased density to build a 12-story tower on the tract, provided the units are sold only to persons 62 years and older, Mitchell said. The site is zoned for town houses.

"The preliminary approval we got basically allows us to go either with the elderly units or without them . . . . If we do not build them, then we'll probably put in about 150 town houses for empty-nesters and two-income career couples," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the 3,000-square-foot luxury units would be the "Cadillac of town homes" and sell for between $300,000 and $325,000. The town houses would be identical to those in the just-completed Riverhill Community in Potomac at River and Seven Locks roads that C.I./Mitchell also built.

But a proposal by County Council member Rose Crenca to restrict the allowable density on parcels of land being considered for special exceptions for senior citizen housing may be a stumbling block for this project and others like it.

If the Crenca bill passes, it would amend the zoning law so that entrepreneurs could not put high rises on parcels smaller than four acres.

The Crenca bill, which is supported by many Silver Spring and Bethesda citizens' groups and being fought vehemently by developers, would increase the amount of land needed to apply for a special exception to build elderly housing from 1.2 acres to 4 acres and require high rises over 45 feet to be set back further from nearby roads.

Crenca said that "down-county residents in older residential neighborhoods increasingly are facing a problem with fill-in development." She cited the Bell property proposal and three other housing projects for the elderly in Silver Spring that all are being considered under the county's special exception zone.

"Entrepreneurs see a chance to make money in a good neighborhood on a 1.5-acre parcel, but know they must get approval for a high rise, if the project is to turn a profit. High rises wouldn't be allowed under the regular zoning so they use the special exception allowed elderly housing. Neighborhoods need protection," Crenca said.

Stoner said much of Maplewood agrees, and some residents testified in favor of the bill when it was aired at a public hearing last week.

Stoner said, "It's the old block-busting game under a new guise. The special exception to allow elderly housing is designed to appeal to citizens who feel a responsibility not to turn their backs on the elderly . . . But basically, all the projects proposed so far are targeted for wealthy seniors who can afford $1,200 a month in rent or a $100,000 condominium. These units are not being built for the needy."

Mitchell said "the Crenca legislation is very ill-advised. It is just something she can use to her advantage in an election year."

Dennis Canavan, a county planner with the division that reviews special exceptions, said the Crenca bill "would eliminate many down-county properties on which elderly housing could even be proposed. There is a demonstrated need for housing for seniors in this area, and large, undeveloped parcels are not that common in these older neighborhoods."

Mitchell said if the elderly high-rise goes is built on the Bell tract, it would be a brick colonial building set "way back off Old Georgetown Road. It will be more visible from the Beltway than from the residential community." Mitchell and Hadid said the building would act as a sound buffer, shielding the single-family homes from traffic noise on I-495.