In suburban enclaves from Bethesda to Baileys Crossroads, the hunt among car owners for a personal spot of asphalt has become the automotive version of musical chairs.

In Alexandria, where parking is second only to architectural purity as a matter of civic concern, residents of one neighborhood resorted to painting the word "RESERVED" on the spaces in front of their houses, and a December citywide meeting on the topic deteriorated into what one participant decried as a "grade-school cat fight."

Officials in nearby Fairfax County, meanwhile, are considering whether to outlaw the paving of front yards after receiving complaints about the aesthetic affront of bumper-to-bumper cars by people's porches.

The main reason for this new strain of neighborhood NIMBYism--a version more appropriately dubbed "Not in My Front Yard"--may simply be the surge in vehicle ownership. Over the last decade, the number of cars zooming around Washington's inner suburbs has grown even faster than the population; in Alexandria and Arlington, for example, there are now nearly as many registered vehicles as there are people, even though many of those people are so young it will be years before they get behind the wheel.

Add to that a recent burst of "infill" development and apartment complexes full or overflowing, and the result is a major parking crunch.

"It's intensifying, oh my, yes," said Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D). "Almost every day I get a call from somebody who's unhappy about parking."

It used to be that homeowners feared their prime parking spaces would be grabbed by invading hordes of commuters, high school students or shoppers. Now, parking wars are being waged among residents of the same street.

One particularly active trouble spot has been KMS Townhouses in the city's West End, where residents believed--mistakenly--that they owned the parking places in front of their homes. When occupants of the adjacent Willow Run apartments--fully rented now for the first time in years--started parking there, the town house residents mobilized, painting "RESERVED" in front of their homes. City workers then came along with their own bucket of paint and "erased" the handiwork of the residents, who then upped the ante by putting orange cones or trash cans out in the street to hold their parking spots.

Further escalating the fight, the town house residents now want Alexandria to create a parking district that would include them while excluding the apartment dwellers across the street. The Traffic and Parking Board unanimously opposed the idea.

A few miles to the east, another neighborhood squabble looms in the city's trendy Old Town area: Future residents of a 30-unit town house development with garages being built on South Union Street will be denied the District 1 parking permits all their neighbors have, part of a new policy that the city attorney says is unprecedented.

It may not be for long, however. Residents of nearby Ford's Landing, a tony new waterfront development with two-car garages, also could find themselves barred from parking in District 1, which begins almost literally on the doorstep of their million-dollar homes.

Ford's Landing residents Mollie and Dale Church are miffed at the thought.

"We pay taxes. We're paying for these streets," he said.

"We live in Alexandria, whether they like it or not," added his wife.

They would be people like Becky Ellis, who lives nearby on an already jampacked street that she'd like to keep Ford's Landing folks from making worse.

"These are not people who are used to being told they can't have something," Ellis said. What's more, she said, the developer of Ford's Landing agreed to the parking prohibition years ago. A bureaucratic foul-up later made it moot, and she and her neighbors want it reinstated.

The parking dilemma is no better in Fairfax. Outside Loi Le's home in Baileys Crossroads one recent evening, Gordon Street was filled with cars, but none of them belonged to him.

"They park here and they walk across the street" to their apartments, he said. Last year, a new residential parking district was created in the neighborhood that keeps people living on one street from parking on their neighbor's street--a first for Fairfax County.

Le's neighborhood also has experienced a proliferation of paved front yards. Replacing fescue with asphalt has become such a popular solution to parking woes that county officials are pondering whether to ban the practice.

In the nearby Parklawn community, Pablo and Norka Garcia haven't yet paved their front lawn, but the day could come. For now, their driveway and on-street parking can accommodate their 10 cars: one for each of the household's four drivers, with six vehicles to spare.

"They're for business," Pablo Garcia explained, before conceding that at least three of the cars are not.

Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) has many constituents like the Garcias. Recently, she said, a man complained to her about the overflow of cars in his neighborhood, then acknowledged that his household had two drivers and three vehicles.

"We've met the enemy, and it's us," Gross said.

Beyond the neighbor-versus-neighbor tensions, old-fashioned parking shortages are worsening as well.

An Arlington parking task force will report to the County Board soon on strategies for relieving congestion in the Rosslyn-Ballston commercial corridor. And in recent months, more has been asked of developers, officials said, noting the new "shared parking" concept at Clarendon Centre, in which one garage will serve residents of the development as well as its daytime office workers.

Task forces are also at work in the District in both the Dupont Circle and Logan Circle neighborhoods, mimicking efforts in Georgetown and the area around Eastern Market.

In Bethesda, where parking headaches are migraine-strength, a jewelry shop owner has agreed to wait on customers curbside if they call ahead on their cell phones. A seventh county parking garage is in the works for the area, but even that won't provide a cure, said Joy Nurmi, who works for County Council member Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac-Bethesda).

With so many cars and so few places to put them, officials find they're spending more and more time as glamorized meter maids. Is it too much effort for such a mundane issue? Ask Paul Dillon, a resident of KMS Townhouses.

"I'm not opposed to anything that's going to get me that parking in front of our house," he said.

CAPTION: Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) is trying to resolve parking conflicts of a town house complex and nearby apartments.