Top officials in Montgomery County say they want to accept developer Anthony Natelli's controversial offer of at least $4 million in return for dropping a requirement that he build 60 units of moderately priced housing in Avenel, Natelli's luxurious new housing and championship golf course development in Potomac.

The money would be used to build affordable housing in downtown Bethesda, said Richard Ferrara, the county's housing and community development director.

The offer and officials' favorable reaction have triggered protests from some neighborhoods, particularly in the eastern part of the county where much of the county's low-cost housing is located.

Under Montgomery's highly promoted affordable housing program, a development with more than 50 homes must contain some units that moderate-income buyers can afford.

A major goal of the program is to avoid concentrating poor residents in a few neighborhoods, but some critics said pricey communities like Potomac and Chevy Chase are not taking their fair share of the units.

If the county accepts Natelli's offer, the money would pay for construction of a rental apartment building for low-income tenants on what is now a county-owned parking lot at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues in Bethesda, Ferrara said. The building would contain "at least 90 and maybe 110 or so" apartments, with rents ranging from $400 to $700 monthly, "way below" the average for the area, he said.

Informal discussions between Natelli and the county government have been underway for more than a year, but Ferrara, who will make the final decision, did not receive Natelli's formal proposal until two weeks ago. Ferrara said he is inclined to approve the deal, but "we will have to work out some issues."

County law permits the housing director to approve "alternative" ways to meet the requirements of the affordable housing law. Ferrara has approved three other alternate housing plans recently, involving fewer units in less-exclusive neighborhoods.

The Avenel proposal is rich in symbolism because it would permit a prominent developer to avoid putting affordable housing at Avenel, home of the professional golf tour's annual Kemper Open.

County Council members and others said they support accepting Natelli's offer despite some misgivings. Some said Natelli has made the county an offer it can't refuse because the money would provide more low-income units in Bethesda, an area where there is much more need for them, than the developer would be required to build at Avenel.

Ferrara said that every advantage goes to the Bethesda site with the single exception that "we are exempting one developer and one area" from the county's affordable housing law. "That has been a cause of great concern to me" and to others involved in the decision, he said.

County Council member Neal Potter said he will not oppose the Natelli offer because "it presents so many advantages for people of modest means."

Putting the rental housing in Bethesda will enable people to walk or use public transportation to go to work or shopping, he said. There is little public transportation in the Avenel area. Potter said, however, that "I think we have to reexamine whether {a decision to exempt Avenel from building low-cost housing} could become a general loophole in the ... law. Should we let any community let people out with fees?"

High homeowner fees, ranging from $150 to $170 monthly, drive the cost of an Avenel house beyond the reach of moderate-income residents, Ferrara said. When these fees are added to monthly mortgage payments, no one meeting the county's income limits could afford them, he said.

The town houses would be priced at about $75,000 for the moderate-income buyers, whose incomes cannot exceed $26,000 for one person and up to about $40,000 for a family of five or more persons.

Avenel's cheapest market-rate units cost from $150,000 to $170,000, and prices extend up to the $2 million range. The monthly homeowner fees are high because the homeowners association maintains individual homeowners' lawns, as well as expensively landscaped common areas, streets and street lights, Natelli said.

Plans for the 850-home development, drafted in the mid-1980s, required 107 units of low-cost housing but the county planning board, at Natelli's request, lowered that number to 60.

In a recent interview, Natelli said his current proposal "is being driven by the opportunity for more units" if they are built elsewhere. "This is a very unique opportunity that presents itself at Avenel," he said.

Critics like Stuart Rochester, vice president of the Columbia Road Citizens Association in Burtonsville, believe "there is one set of rules for Potomac and one set for Route 29."

"This deal, if it goes through, will be one of the biggest scandals in the county," and should be dubbed "Avenelgate," Bethesda resident Marc Richman wrote in a letter to County Council President William E. Hanna Jr.

Rochester said many residents in his area believe "a transparent double standard ... exists in the application" of the county's affordable housing policy. If no moderately priced housing is built in the Potomac development, residents in his area, "will be justifiably livid and will press for the abolition of a county program riddled with inconsistency if not outright favoritism."

County Council member Isiah Leggett, who lives in the Route 29 corridor, said that at first he supported putting the affordable housing in Avenel. But he said he changed his mind because of the lack of public transportation in the Potomac area and the high homeowner fees.

"Weighed against that was only the factor of what kind of precedent does {not building low-income housing at Avenel} set?" he asked.

Leggett, who lives where many of the county's low-cost housing units are located, said his neighborhood has been "inundated" by the units and many residents want communities such as Avenel to take their fair share.

The three county planning areas that encompass most of the Route 29 corridor contain 1,360 of the county's 7,750 Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs), as the housing is known, said Eric Larsen, the county's MPDU director. The Potomac and Cabin John areas have 265 such units and neighboring Darnestown and Travilah have a total of 658, he said.

Areas zoned for lots of one and two acres, as is much of Potomac, are exempt from the MPDU requirements.

Larsen said Route 29 area residents may be confusing MPDUs with another low-cost housing program that has allowed construction of numerous units in the area. There is a moratorium on construction in the area but developers get waivers if they make 20 percent of their homes available to county residents with incomes of less than half the Washington metropolitan area's median income.