In June 1999, amid hopes to improve the worn, tired sections of the county that have the most weathered and crippled properties, Prince William officials began a program that they hoped would lift the dilapidated areas.

Since its inception, the $200,000 Spot Blight Program has reviewed 39 properties. Last week, the Board of County Supervisors heard requests from county staff to declare three of the properties as blighted, forcing the owners to either repair their buildings or allow them to be demolished by the county. The board approved the request and will hold a public hearing on the properties in February.

So far, two buildings have been torn down. Overall, only 28 of the properties were declared blighted by the building inspector, Eric Mays. The remaining 11 were neither in severe disrepair nor in violation of the building code or zoning ordinance, though they were an eyesore and a nuisance to the community, Mays said.

"The houses for the program are in such distress," he said. "These are the ones that have gone so long without maintenance that they are to the point of structural decay."

Virginia L. Benson, the county's zoning administrator, said the Spot Blight program is "a last resort."

"The properties are referred to the program after they've been vacant and an eyesore for years and after we've done everything we could to get it up to standards," Benson said. "With the blight program, we're saying no action has been taken to keep this building up and it's not suitable for renovation and it's having a negative impact on the surrounding area."

The properties--often gutted from a decades-old fire or simply fallen from years of neglect--usually catch the attention of neighbors, she said, who complain about the aesthetics of the area.

"Most often we get complaints from people who live near there, neighbors who say it's causing the prices of homes to fall and that no one is wanting to move in because of the vacant building next door," Benson said.

Of the 11 properties not accepted as blighted, four require that the sites be cleared. Two of those cases have been completed. The other two are being handled through the county attorney's office. Of those two, one is held up in litigation and the other is owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, making it federal property, officials said.

Of the 28 properties considered blighted, residents have voluntarily demolished eight. Two buildings have been repaired, and three have been demolished at the county's expense, approximately $15,000 each. The rest are awaiting action.

The process, according to Craig S. Gerhart, acting county executive, is involved. The county finds a property that is nearly crumbled and abandoned and reports it to supervisors, who then alert the owner within 30 days. Three or four weeks later, the board hears the case at a public hearing, where the building owner has a chance to either assure supervisors that the property will be repaired or to agree that it should be demolished. The owner then has 60 days to fix the problems. Otherwise, the county can demolish the building.

If the property is demolished, the county places a lien on it, preventing the owner from selling it without paying the county for clearing the area, said county Planning Director Rick Lawson.

"These are the tools that are necessary to get the results people want, and it's the most efficient process for doing so," he said.

The main concern, Lawson said, is whether the building is safe, and safety must take precedence.

"If it has to, it gets to where we say, 'Listen, if you don't take it down, we will,' " he said.

There are 26 more properties awaiting evaluation by the county.