The thorny issue of whether to plant or not to plant waged between a group of Bethesda residents and office developer Alan I. Kay has been decided. The ruling, in favor of the residents: to plant.

The Montgomery County Planning Board last week unanimously ordered Kay, over his protests, to put plants along the terraces of his hotel-office complex atop the Bethesda Metro station.

Six years ago, Kay proposed to zoning authorities that he would place planter boxes on each level of the step-down terraces of the two buildings. The visual effect would be much like the National Geographic Society's building in Washington on M Street NW.

In a sometimes stormy, sometimes rollicking hour-long debate that included talk of architectural compatibility as well as Teddy Ruxpin skating parties, the planning board ordered Kay to put the planters along the terraces by Dec. 31 or face losing occupancy permits for the two buildings.

The complex, located at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, includes the Bethesda Hyatt Regency and a 15-story office building.

Kay declined to comment on the board's ruling.

When he proposed the hotel-office complex in 1981, part of the designs for the two buildings included a step-down terrace with lush plants.

The terrace and gardens idea was lauded by some nearby residents, many of whom had first objected to the imposing towers as being architecturally at odds with the Edgemoor neighborhood located to the west of the Metro station.

But more importantly, the county planning board reacted favorably to the design and other proposed amenities.

Kay, by offering the planters and other amenities, was able to use a new "optional" zoning method to build a larger complex than otherwise would have been allowed under the area's commercial zoning regulations.

Since then, the buildings, minus the planters, have been constructed.

Earlier this year, Kay retreated from his promise to add plants, arguing that the tenants in the office building objected.

He added that Hyatt officials said they could not guarantee that rowdy guests would not throw the planters over the side of the terraces, which would be a potential liability risk.

Prior to the planning board hearing in Silver Spring, Kay said that the $150,000 to $250,000 estimated cost to install the gardens was "not even a consideration. The tenants don't want them. ... . This is ridiculous."

Last week's hearing was called after planners in the county's urban design division urged the planning board to find Kay in violation of the original design approved by the county six years ago.

At the hearing, Kay, his lawyer and a self-described promotional coordinator told the five-member panel that they have performed other community services. Those services included offering big band concerts, ice skating parties and increased public space at the $160 million complex.

"The money for children and the elderly {for community events at the plaza} instead of the planters would be much better spent," Kay told the panel.

But that plea did not impress the board members or neighborhood residents, who came out in force to protest Kay's reluctance to put in the planters.

Judith Heimann, a former county planning board member and a Bethesda resident, said Kay's complex "looks naked" without the plants.

"Mr. Kay doesn't live in Bethesda, so he doesn't have to look at them," Heimann said. "{Kay} has been dragging his feet for a long time now."

The planning board's members agreed.

"I feel very strongly about agreements that are made and conditions that are set," said panel member Carol G. Henry. She added that even though the complex is being considered for architectural awards, "you {Kay} still have to prove {the project} to this community."

Board member Betty Ann Krahnke, who unsuccessfully sought to force Hay to post a bond with the county to ensure the planters are installed, said the purpose of the garden terraces is "to soften the edges of the buildings" and improve the look of the complex "to the community beyond."

Panel Chairman Norman Christeller rejected Kay's last-ditch hope to get the plant concept scuttled on grounds that the plants, if thrown from the balconies of the Hyatt, could endanger pedestrians.

"Don't the {guests} have chairs in their rooms {that can also be dropped off the balconies}? I can't give any credence to that argument," Christeller said.

Kay has 30 days to appeal the board's ruling to the Montgomery County Circuit Court.