Eighteen years ago, Helen Douglas walked every part of the Georgetown South town house development in Prince William County without reservation. Now Douglas, 60, says there are parts of the 864-unit complex that she is afraid to set foot on.

"It's very disconcerting to me," said Douglas, who is president of the Georgetown South Community Council.

"It's a negative feeling. I don't know how to express it. I just wish it weren't so."

Georgetown South, in southeastern Manassas, was built 24 years ago as one of Prince William County's first town house developments. It has evolved from a community hailed as a model project to a community that is of increasing concern to the city of Manassas, about 25 miles southwest of Washington.

Many of the 2,300 residents are attempting to rid the development of blight that has kept property values down and has prompted some Manassas residents to call the development a ghetto.

"There is a definite negative connotation that goes with living here," said Tim Witt, a 34-year-old cartographer who has lived in Georgetown South for a decade.

"You can be having a conversation with someone and you say you live here and they'll say, 'Oh,' and the mood of the conversation changes. It's sad."

Nick Dinkel, a resident of the community for three years, recently walked into a grocery store and found a sign posted that said: "We don't want another town house development. Look at Georgetown South."

A survey earlier this year by the city and the Prince William Cooperative Extension Service of nearly half of Georgetown South's households showed concern over such problems as illegal drug use, domestic violence, youth gangs, poor property maintenance, lack of parking and unsupervised children.

To cope with the concern about life at Georgetown South, the Manassas City Council has created a task force that will include city staff, educators, police and residents, and whose job will be to find solutions to the community's problems.

Georgetown South homes this year are selling for between $44,500 and $64,000, but other Manassas town houses are selling for prices ranging from $68,000 to $104,000, according to city records. City officials also said Georgetown South's property values have appreciated far slower than those at similar developments.

No one doubts that there are problems in this complex, but opinions vary about their scope and how best to deal with them.

Police Chief Sam Ellis, who plans to join the task force, probably knows the troubles associated with Georgetown South better than anyone except its residents. In August, his department responded to nearly 400 calls from the complex. In an equal number of calls last year, 135 involved domestic disputes and fights in which police had to intervene.

Thirty-five officers were injured during various disputes at the complex last year.

Twelve percent of the city's 21,000 residents live at Georgetown South.

In the summer, that percentage required 39 percent of police resources, Ellis said. "At times that place has resembled a police state," he said.

On numerous occasions, he said, police have responded to calls about groups of youths that sometimes have numbered as many as 100.

Ellis said that "social gangs" were often at the core of these gatherings.

The gangs usually just "hang out," according to Ellis, but at times they extort money from motorists at intersections.

Drugs are also a problem within these groups, said Ellis, who estimated that out of a group of 20 youths gathered in the development, 12 to 15 might be using cocaine.

What is most perplexing, Ellis said, is the fact that many of the problems are apparently being caused by people who do not live at Georgetown South. A police investigation last year revealed that a majority of the cars driving through Georgetown South were from outside Manassas, with most of them from more urban sections of Northern Virginia and the District.

"One night, 70 percent of the cars weren't from here," Ellis said. Even more alarming, he said, is that when some cars were checked, guns and narcotics were found.

Ellis said a minority of residents is tainting the reputation of the majority, noting that perhaps 40 of the families are creating the problems.

Nonetheless, he said the problem is not going away.

"No matter how hard we try, we're not making a difference," Ellis said.

"I am convinced that police enforcement is not the answer. The community is going to have to get involved."

About 10 Georgetown South residents met recently with city officials to seek assistance.

The group found, however, that residents themselves are responsible for property maintenance and the development's covenants can be used to enforce general design standards in the community.

The city is studying a zoning maintenance code that would set minimum standards for property maintenance, but the measure has not been approved.

"I think that the biggest surprise is that we are on our own," said Patt Fields, a Georgetown South resident for 12 years.

The residents decided to form groups to tour their neighborhoods and find which covenants are being violated.

They then plan to ask the lawyer for their property owner's association for advice in enforcing regulations.

Some of the residents attending the meeting blamed their problems on absentee landlords, whom they believe have been more concerned about their rent checks than maintaining their property.

When the community was built, most of the occupants were owners, and many had upper middle-class incomes, according to Lorene Payne, Manassas' zoning administrator. After five years, some owners moved on to bigger homes and began to rent out their town houses.

That trend continued for about 10 years and peaked with about 90 percent of the town houses renter-occupied.

The trend recently has reversed, and owner occupancy is now at 40 percent, she said.

But some renters said they have been unfairly labeled as the source of the community's troubles.

"A lot of the renters take care of their homes as if they owned them," said Ymelda Mallett, 36, a renter in the community for three years. Mallett acknowledged that some of the renters have created problems, but she added, "The renters have problems with the absentee landlords. Some of the renters only know a real estate firm and never know who the owner is. When things need to be fixed, there is no one to turn to."

Mallett said she is angered by what she calls myths about Georgetown South.

Mallett said, for instance, that many Manassas residents probably believe that most Georgetown South residents are on some type of public assistance. Judy Hays, the city's director of social services, said a low percentage of Georgetown South residents receive public aid.

"Georgetown South residents get painted with one broad brush," Hays said.

While the community began as a predominantly white, white-collar community, it is now a blue- and white-collar community composed of a number of ethnic groups, including blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

The income disparity in the community is noteworthy, according to the survey of residents conducted by the city and the Prince William Cooperative Extension Service. The survey indicated that 25 percent of the households have an income of $34,401 or more, while about 23 percent earn $22,000 or less.

"Our strength is that we are a melting pot of religions, races and cultures," Mallett said. "It can also be a problem. There are fears of not knowing what the other person is like."

"I'm not sorry I bought here," said Judy Robinson.

"In the two years I have been here, I can see a {positive} difference. It only takes a couple of people to make a change," Robinson said.

Dan Batson, 23, agrees that the community is as bad as its reputation, but he also indicated that the small number of people creating the trouble "is a real problem."

Fields added, "Georgetown South has got to take a stronger stand and work together."