Julia Cornell says it's the nastiest situation you ever saw. On cold winter nights she bundles up in coat and boots to make the trip down the muddy path to the wooden privy behind her house. On hot, dry summer days she trudges over to a neighbor's well is dry too, and then she does without.

And when you live at the bottom of the hill as Cornell does, she says, raw sewage runs across your yard from neighbors' outhouses and bootleg septic tanks up the hill.

Cornell, 73, says her neighborhood--the Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy community in southwest Fairfax County--has changed little since she moved there in 1919.

"They (the county) just want to keep this area like it was 100 years ago," she said. "And they durn sure have."

The community consists of 169 houses scattered along narrow, twisting backroads. southwest Fairfax. It is about three miles and several decades from the county offices in Fairfax City, and just down the road from picture-book suburban estates perched on rolling hills and framed by white rail fences.

Most of the houses have neither running water nor indoor bathrooms. Many are heated by wood-burning stoves. Most are badly in need of paint and repairs. Outhouses, water wells and hand pumps from another era dot the yards.

"It's like what you would see in Appalachia," said Robert C. Counts, director of community development for the county Office of Housing and Community Development. "And it's in one of the wealthiest counties in America."

The plight of the community hinges on one issue: sewers. And the sewering of Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy has been one of the longest running, most complex political battles in Fairfax County.

Fairfax has been promising to bring the neighborhood into the 20th century for almost 30 years, according to residents and county officials. Some officials say the end is finally in sight--that installation of the sewer system should begin by summer. The engineers' plans are undergoing final review by the state Water Control Board, they say, and the county has obtained easements from most of the residents in the community--one of the final steps toward installing sewer lines and treatment facilities.

Other officials are skeptical, however. They've heard the promises before. Some of them even made the promises.

"I've quit trying to predict when they will be tying in (to the system)," said Counts. "Last time I went to a meeting out there I told them, 'I've told you so many lies, I'm not going to do it any more.' Every single time, something's popped up."

Now, with the county about to seek bids on building the sewer system, the problems continue. Because of long delays, the $3.5 million originally appropriated from federal and local sources won't be enough to finish the job, said County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert. He said his staff will submit proposals for coping with the cost overrun to the Board of Supervisors within the next month.

Last week county attorneys and staff members began discussing privately the idea of junking present plans for a separate sewer system and tying the area into a huge sewer line being installed for a new housing development several miles away.

Staff members say that could save the county $2 million. But, staff members say, some officials oppose tying into the sewer line because the county's connection fees would subsidize the private developer's project.

Most of the problems in supplying sewers to the community have been tied to politics, according to Counts.

"Our assignment has been to sewer an area nobody wanted sewered," Counts said.

The Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy community was a mistake from the beginning, said Marie B. Travesky, who represents the area on the Board of Supervisors. It never should have been built, she said.

"The people there were sold a bill of goods," she said. "Somebody told them the county would sewer the area."

That was in the late 1940s, when the land was subdivided and most of the matchbook-sized, one- and two-room cinderblock houses were built.

But the community was built on rocky land that will not absorb water or sewer runoff, according to Travesky and other county officials. For years the county considered it technically impossible and economically unfeasible to install sewer facilities there.

Then, when the technology finally was developed, politics intervened.

The community is in the Popes Head watershed, which feeds Popes Head Creek, which empties into the Occoquan River near the intake to the Occoquan Reservoir. Most of Fairfax County's drinking water comes from that reservoir.

Environmentalists have long warned that opening the area to development could threaten the county's water supply with pollution from sewers and other runoff. And some officials maintain that sewering the Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy area would give developers the foothold they need to move into the Occoquan watershed.

"The county is pulled two ways," said Counts. "The politically nice thing to do is provide this service, but that opens thousands of acres to potential development."

But Supervisor Audry Moore, one of the most outspoken opponents of intense land development in the county, said, "I'm satisfied the board is not doing this to open the area to development."

Travesky goes a step further.

"If government really wants to help these people, we can find a way to do it without opening the area to development," she said. "You have a moral obligation to take care of people like this."

County authorities say they have now found the way. The system they currently plan to install will have a network of small sewer pipes to carry waste from each house to a grinder pump in the front yard of each residence. Waste would be collected from the pumps and trucked to a 70-acre landfill.

Officials say the system could accommodate as many as 360 houses. To discourage a rash of new construction in the area, however, the county would charge builders of new homes $8,000 to $10,000 to tie into the system. Current residents can hook up for about $2,500, most of which would be financed through federal and local grants and loans, said Counts.

Residents say the long-awaited sewer system would mean more than the convenience of indoor toilets and running water in their bathtubs. It would mean facelifts for shabby houses. It would allow construction of a permanent community center to replace the overcrowded, temporary building the neighborhood has used for the past 12 years. And most important, they say, it would bring new blood--young people moving into the community.

Current county health and building regulations prohibit residents from making additions or major improvements to their homes. Residents may not install septic tanks for indoor toilets because the land is considered too rocky to absorb the waste runoff. Construction of new houses has been barred since 1969.

Without sewer facilities, said Counts, the county didn't want new development in the area.

"People feel a lot of frustrations," said Marguerite Mott, who has lived in the Lewis community 22 years. "There were so many things the county told them they couldn't do."

Some residents defied the regulations, however, and installed bootleg septic tanks and water lines and built additions onto their tiny, overcrowded houses.

Many were caught by the health authorities, threatened with fines and issued citations ordering them to stop their unauthorized construction projects. From their point of view, they were being punished for trying to improve their homes and make life a little more comfortable.

But despite the hassles with the bureaucracy and living conditions reminiscent of another time, there has been little migration from the community one resident called a "no-man's land."

The majority of residents are poor. Most of the older ones are retired and live on fixed incomes. Many of the younger ones are unemployed. Those who are employed work in blue collar jobs, according to James Mott, president of the Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy Citizens Association.

"We own our houses and they're paid for," said Julia Cornell. "I'm stuck."

Her daughter's family lives next door. A granddaughter and her three children, an aunt and her seven children, two brothers and a sister also live in nearby houses. The community attracts and keeps families.

And some residents seem oblivious to the inconveniences.

"I love it," said John D. Kennedy, 64, as his wife Gladys lifted a pot of heated water from the wood stove to wash a stack of dirty dishes on a nearby counter. Kennedy said he pays $20 a week to rent the tiny house where he and his wife have lived for 14 years. According to county surveys, about 40 percent of the residents are renters.

Others like the neighborhood's rural flavor.

James Stanley bought a house there five years ago, after almost 13 years of living in suburban trailer parks and apartments.

"When you're raised on a farm and then have to live in a trailer or apartment, it's a different way of living," said Stanley. "I couldn't hack it."

Stanley admitted that the Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy community was a little more rural than he bargained for, but said it was the best he could afford.

Property assessments in the community range from about $13,000 to about $40,000 for a house with an acre, according to county records.

John F. Herrity, Board of Supervisors chairman and vigorous opponent of the sewer project, said he thinks the improvements and an influx of new people would hurt the community more than they would help.

"The county will swoop in there with sewerage," said Herrity. "The price of houses will go up. Taxes will go up. Then where will those people go? At least now they have a roof over their heads."

Some real estate agencies already have pounced on the prospects of increased property values in the area.

The price tag on a tiny, three-bedroom bungalow on Ruby Drive just off Braddock Road is $42,500. It is on a half-acre site, its bathroom is an old wooden privy, and water comes via an outdoor hand pump.

A similar house across the street, situated on well-drained land, has a septic tank and running water. The owner is asking $76,000.

"We have documents from the county saying a sewerage system will be brought in this spring," said an enthusiastic real estate salesman at the agency listing the $42,500 house. "You can see how the prices will jump when it gets in here."

Travesky disagreed. "People won't be fighting to build $300,000 houses out there," she said. "We won't all of a sudden have a brand new town. We're just allowing the people who want to stay there to get a bathroom and add a bedroom."

Houses in the community aren't the only ones in Fairfax County without modern plumbing. County health officials estimate that about 700 to 1,000 houses in Fairfax have no running water or indoor bathroom facilities. The Lincoln-Lewis-Vannoy community, however, with a population of about 600, has the highest concentration of such houses, health authorities say.

And Travesky said she thinks it is "disgraceful" that the county has procrastinated so many years on bringing improvements to the community.

"I feel it's a black mark on the county," Travesky said. "How can Fairfax County call itself great when there are people that don't even have sewer and water facilties?"