It's been going on for the better part of a decade, this dirt bike debate, with neighbors angry over dust and noise and riders riding free and wild.

The riders say it's a family activity, the kind of sport a retiree can enjoy, or a father with his sons after he ditches his Harley-Davidson for an off-road motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle.

The neighbors point to the noisy engines, the torn earth, the dust clouds they say rise as high as treetops, and they say, Not in my back yard. Not in the landfill abutting my house, or in the patch of forest along that nearby highway.

When Prince William County cracked down on off-road motorcyclists last fall, the dirt flew. Riders protested the loss of several key recreational areas, and some stopped riding or began going out of the county to places in Spotsylvania County, Stafford County, Maryland and even Pennsylvania. But the rumblings on both sides started up again at county meetings in recent months, and Prince William is considering further restrictions.

This time, the riders are organizing.

They have leaders. They have a name, PWORC, which stands for Prince William Off Road Coalition. They have an image, which includes a new emphasis--family--and a saying: "Don't call us dirt bikers." And they have hopes for a piece of riding land where the cycles won't bother the neighbors and the neighbors won't bother the cyclists.

The turf battles underscore the changes that sprawl has wrought in Prince William. There are fewer large patches of land here than even five years ago. Where once there were only forests, now homeowners peer out from their windows at shrinking tree lots.

In many areas of the country, off-road riders are finding that they don't have the same freedom they once did to roar and rumble across prime patches of dirt--especially as compared with the early '70s, when off-road motorcycles last experienced a surge in popularity.

Nationally, there are 1.4 million off-road motorcycles in use, compared with 750,000 in 1990, according to the California-based Motorcycle Industry Council, a pace that has outstripped the population growth. And that number does not include ATVs and dual-purpose motorcycles, which are street-legal as well as equipped for dirt riding.

Meanwhile, more and more jurisdictions across the country find themselves having to designate a piece of land, known as a "riding park," for off-roaders. Such legislation seems a sort of spiritual conversion for a sport begun by riders informally gathering on backwoods patches of dirt.

"We've seen a growing interest in [riding parks] in California and in urban areas," said Eric Lundquist, a senior legislative affairs specialist for the Ohio-based American Motorcyclist Association, who adds that parks are often paid for through a combination of state and federal funds. "When I was growing up in the '70s, you were able to walk the bike down to a vacant field. But you can't do that anymore."

As they are increasingly shunted out of the area, Prince William riders are eager to get in on the trend toward setting aside land. They say the county needs to recognize their sport as legitimate, just like soccer or baseball. They hope to reclaim an unused part of the county landfill in the Coles District where they used to ride, with the help of the county and possibly private funds.

But neighbors of the landfill aren't so enthusiastic. They have the same complaints that others made about bikers using a two-acre stretch of land along Route 1 in Triangle, which prompted the ordinance last fall. Back then, supervisors said they were hearing an increasing number of gripes from county residents about noise and dirt, and they issued an ordinance restricting dirt bikers and ATV riders from tearing around on private property without written permission from the landowner.

Before the ordinance, "it became a living nightmare," said Nadine Freese, whose house is down a gravel road from the landfill. "They were out here racing and speeding, coming in day and night, in groups of four or six."

Freese said the situation has gotten much better since then, and police concur that they've heard fewer community complaints over the last six months.

Freese said a riding park might not be a bad idea--but not in her neck of the woods. If an area of landfill was set aside for dirt bikers, she said, "I think it would be a major problem for the landfill to even implement it. . . . They would not be content just to ride in the designated area."

Supervisor Mary K. Hill (R-Coles) said that she certainly would not rule out the landfill idea but that she is acutely aware of the unhappiness of those who live near the beleaguered site.

"This is just one more thing that we are asking the people who live around the landfill to put up with," Hill said.

Assistant County Attorney Robert B. Dickerson is the point man on the issue of any future dirt bike laws. He's supposed to hear all the sides and come back to the supervisors with some ideas, hopefully within a month. The restrictions he and the county might consider include placing a lower limit on the amount of acreage required for off-road riding, requiring significant buffers on riding land or restricting the number of people who can ride in one place at one time.

Hill said she wants to know just how many riders there are in the county, something PWORC might soon get a handle on as it builds its nascent organization.

The group says it is strong in numbers and points to the county's very young population and the recent national interest in "extreme sports" as a possible reason for the sport's popularity. It said that about 75 people showed up at a recent meeting and that there are 200 possible supporters on the group's mailing list.

The controversy seems to have given rise to an unlikely idealism among riders. They tout off-road motorcycling as a panacea that can keep families together and children out of trouble. PWORC's aggressive organizer, a 50-year-old retiree who just began riding a year ago, said the group is fighting for property rights and something more--something ineffable and healing about the very act of riding itself.

"It puts something back in your soul," Joyce Entremont said. "I get out in the woods and it's beautiful and the wind's blowing in your face and it's awesome. It's absolutely awesome."

Entremont said that if the landfill plan works, she would like to establish a program to bring troubled teenagers into off-road riding.

Joan Moon, a member of the Landfill Oversight Committee, is bucking the opposition of her fellow committee members in order to tentatively support the landfill-riding plan. She admits the motorcycles disturb her quiet and destroy the sensitive environment around the landfill. But such factors can be diminished with a fence and some cooperation, she said.

And the move could benefit the community, Moon said. A recent visit Moon took to the county jail convinced her that too many youths were at risk in a violent world and that they needed to be saved.

Riding "keeps them out of trouble," she said. "With all the trouble we're having with kids here and crime here . . . why not make it work?"

Down the road, Nadine Freese is happy simply to have things quiet. If she has her way, the healing will have to take place elsewhere.

"It's been like we first wanted it to be when we first bought the land and had the house built," Freese said. "You can hear the birds sing."