Residents of Independent Hill, a rural enclave with some of Prince William's oldest homes, have suffered for years with failing septic tanks that they--and county health officials--fear might have contaminated their drinking water.

It has been three years since they began pleading with the county to extend public sewer lines to their homes. The county, concerned about the cost of such an investment, weighed and studied the issue.

Yesterday, county officials announced a solution. It will cost Independent Hill residents $15,000 apiece, but an end to their woes is in sight: The county will build a sewer line along a stretch of Route 234 that feeds into their neighborhood.

"It's a big step in the right direction," said Barbara Samsky, who owns a 40-year-old house on Joplin Road.

The new line could help 13 to 52 property owners. The county Service Authority, which runs the sewer system, will extend by 5,000 feet the existing sewer line at the Juvenile Detention Home on Route 234.

"This brings the line a lot closer to the failing systems," said Tom Smith, chief of the county's solid waste division.

The new, low-pressure line is designed to replace the septic tanks at the county animal shelter and the county landfill, as well as older systems such as the homeowners' that failed last year.

County officials said yesterday that they could design and build the line by winter for $97,000. The line would then be extended to a School Board annex, west of the animal shelter, that wants to connect to the public sewer system, bringing it to within a few hundred yards of some of the affected homes. The cost of the second leg is still being calculated.

Once the line's second leg is built, homeowners who wish to connect to the sewer would pay the county $15,000 for pumps, tank fees and hookups to the system.

County officials said they would look into low-interest loans and grants to help the property owners defray hookup costs.

Prince William County, with its large rural pockets, has thousands of houses that aren't on public sewer lines.

Independent Hill, which straddles the Brenstville, Dumfries and Coles districts, has septic tanks that were built 40 and 50 years ago, under less restrictive building standards than today's. It is the only neighborhood with uniformly failing systems.

The county recently surveyed 52 properties--houses and a handful of businesses--on Joplin and Aden roads in Independent Hill to gauge the extent of the problem. Thirteen responded.

Yesterday, a pastor who has led the fight to get the county's attention told the Board of County Supervisors that far more than 13 property owners have failed septic systems.

"The people are scared to tell you they're there, because they're afraid you're going to condemn their property," said John Peyton, pastor of the Reconciliation Community Church on Joplin Road.

Peyton said Independent Hill has no guarantees when the second leg of the line will be built. He noted that the county acted only when the septic systems at the landfill and animal shelters failed.

"The government is going to take care of the government first, and the people are going to be last," he said, echoing the sentiments of the half-dozen residents gathered for a public hearing on the sewer plan.

Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville) told Peyton that because the residential properties in the neighborhood lie downstream of the landfill and shelter buildings, the higher-elevation part of the system needs to be built first.

In other business yesterday, the board voted to appoint a task force of residents and off-road motorcyclists to resolve a growing debate over dirt bikes and where they can ride.

The panel will be charged with finding a suitable location in Prince William that can be designated for biking.