For nearly 60 years, the Wesley Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington remained largely unchanged, a collection of relatively modest two-story homes with few vacant lots available for development.

But by the mid-1980s, bulldozers and scaffolding had become a common sight in the community. Some residents had decided they wanted to stay in Wesley Heights but also wanted to expand their homes.

Long-time residents started adding sun rooms, third floors and entire extensions on the fronts or the backs of their houses. A handful of developers bought houses only to demolish them in favor of constructing larger homes.

More than a few residents didn't like what they saw.

As the houses grew, back yards, front yards and vacant lots were disappearing along with the "garden quality" of the neighborhood, which is bordered by Battery Kemble Park, Glover Archibald Park and the American University campus. Many homeowners feared that the value of their houses would drop if they became dwarfed by neighboring structures.

The result has been an intense and ongoing neighborhood debate of just what the community ought to look like and how much development should be allowed.

Another chapter was written in the debate last month as the community voted 160 to 20 to submit a zoning overlay proposal to the D.C. Zoning Commission for its consideration. It would apply stricter guidelines on future development in the community.

At issue is the changing look and feel of a neighborhood that many homeowners say they believe finished growing in 1930. Wesley Heights was built by the W.C. and A.N. Miller Co. in the 1920s, and since many houses have been held by the same owners for more than a generation, change had been slow to arrive. But it finally did.

"There is this sense of growing density, of filling up these spaces that have given the neighborhood the uncrowded feeling that is soothing to the senses," said Leonard Santos, who headed the Ad Hoc Wesley Heights Zoning Committee, a group set up to write the final zoning overlay proposal.

Their task was actually to rewrite an overlay proposal drawn up by a smaller group of neighbors who were first to organize and discuss the issue.

The group, which first organized in September 1988 and called itself the Wesley Heights Committee, concentrated on what could be done to bring development under control.

In June 1989, they changed the name to the Wesley Heights Historical Society for tax reasons and started to act. As the group was writing its proposal for the zoning commission, another set of neighbors met on another concern -- that actions being discussed by the Historical Society would prohibit people from changing their own houses.

"I was very much opposed to the original concept, which was a very complicated set of details in the overlay like the slope of the roof and setback {from property lines} and new definitions of height," said Robert Bell, a D.C. architect who lives in Wesley Heights. "I didn't think it was appropriate for Wesley Heights because when you look at Wesley Heights it didn't fit with what's special about Wesley Heights."

To heal the polarization of the neighborhood, Santos and the Ad Hoc Committee rewrote the overlay proposal. They eliminated some of the specific rules and replaced them with more general guidelines. Nonethe less, there would still be some exacting requirements. The revised proposal lowers the percentage of a lot that can be built on to 30 percent of the land area from 40 percent and limits the amount of livable floor area to 2,000 square feet plus 40 percent of the square footage of the lot.

Thus, a house on a 10,000-square-foot lot could cover 3,000 square feet of the lot and occupy 6,000 square feet, spread over two or three floors. Few houses in Wesley Heights exceed either of these guidelines.

While many residents have increased the sizes of their houses, only a few developments angered anyone.

The first took place at the 4400 block of Klingle Street NW, where a developer bought two adjacent houses, demolished them and built two much bigger houses on the sites.

The size and style of the two houses, which are built identically and facing each other, is more modern than those in the rest of the neighborhood. After those two houses were enlarged, the owner of another nearby house put on an addition that extended the home closer to the street and dwarfed other houses, many neighbors said.

On another corner, a developer moved a diagonally positioned house so he could build a second house on the same lot, filling in a steep incline and a natural stream, upsetting more neighbors.

As some residents started to meet and research the neighborhood's zoning code, they realized that the new structures complied with existing zoning restrictions.

"There was no question that the developers were within their rights under the existing zoning regulations," said Sandra Rennie, president of the Wesley Heights Historical Society. "This was a very harsh reality check of how much density the zoning ordinances do allow."

Last month's vote, development restriction advocates said, will likely send a message to the zoning commission that the overlay is what a majority of the homeowners want. The zoning commission, which has had the original petition since April 11, has yet to agree to schedule a hearing on the measure.

After the amendment is filed, "it's not uncommon that a case like this takes a year or more, two years maybe," said Cecil Tucker, secretary to the zoning commission.

While the work of the Ad Hoc Committee has calmed the tempers of many residents, some still oppose any change to the zoning rules, which are already part of the most restrictive category the District has.

Resident Steven Goldberg registered his dissent to the movement in a letter to the zoning commission:

"I view the Wesley Heights Historical Society proposal as an elitist attempt at imposing the views of a few who are claiming to be a majority over the rest of the homeowners who have not focused on the harm these proposals would do. I think you will find that the proponents do not have any plans for major improvements to their homes and don't care if they severely inconvenience those who are planning renovations or additions."

But Rennie, Santos and others say they think they have a clear sense of the community's will and plan to press their effort with the zoning commission.