The people of Clifton Forest paid handsomely for their homes: about $350,000 each. And why not? The spacious, half-acre lots, beautiful interior designs and scenic setting make the development, in the Vannoy Park section of western Fairfax County, a homeowner's dream.

But as residents arrived, beginning in 1989, each discovered just one problem -- water. Specifically, there didn't seem to be very much of it in their wells.

As one resident, Richard Peterson, explained it, "When you buy a car, you expect it to have an engine. When you buy a house, you expect it to have water."

Simple enough, except that nothing is simple these days about Peterson's situation or those of his 19 Clifton Forest neighbors.

After months of inquiries, negotiations and finger-pointing, more or less in that order, the only thing everyone agrees on is that the people of Clifton Forest bought into a bizarre Catch-22, thanks to an obscure gap in county and state laws.

No one disputes a scarcity of water, a shortage that could ultimately affect water quality and minimum health code standards. But no one seems to have broken any laws either. And so far no one is willing to foot the $500,000 bill for the only solution guaranteed to keep Clifton Forest toilets flushing and sprinklers sprinkling without further mishap -- connection to the county water system.

"We've never had a problem like" Clifton Forest, said Dennis Hill, a program manager with the Fairfax County Health Department's division of environmental health.

"The solution eludes me," said Robert Etris, planning branch manager for the Fairfax County Water Authority.

Complicating matters, homeowners say the project's builder, McLean-based D.P. Yeonas Co., repeatedly misled them about water levels when they bought their homes. A memo circulated among Clifton Forest neighbors by residents refers to the development's two remaining unsold homes and suggests residents "do whatever we can to prevent the sale of these two houses," in order to force Yeonas to help solve the water problem.

In response, the builder's attorney, George Yeonas, brother of D.P. Yeonas Co.'s president, Dean, has threatened to sue residents who interfere with sales efforts.

Dean Yeonas conceded there is a significant problem with the Clifton Forest water supply, but said he had "no prior knowledge of a problem. I don't know if it's true or not" that homeowners were misled about water levels by Yeonas employees, he said.

"I don't believe it's true," he said. "The unfortunate thing is that some {homeowners} out there really believe we intentionally led them into this, but that's just not the case."

On Feb. 25, Clifton Forest residents plan to appear before the county Board of Supervisors, and the county's lawmakers may be drawn into the fray. But, as Etris said, "I don't think anyone knows where this one is going."

When Yeonas built Clifton Forest, the contract between the builder and landowner Jae Kim, a local contractor, required use of existing well water.

Unfortunately, Clifton Forest sits on dense rock that makes water tough to find. Wells don't actually tap into a water table, Hill said, but into seepage from the rocks. Wells fill up, but slowly. Too slowly, residents say, and county officials confirm, to replace the water that's been used.

In some Clifton Forest homes, wells can't "possibly produce enough water to supply water use" in the homes, Hill said.

All of which has led homeowners to wonder why the county let Yeonas dig wells in the first place. The answer, they said, made their heads spin.

To begin with, since there are no county requirements on the subject, the county apparently had no say in the matter.

There were state minimum well-water requirements at the time Clifton Forest was built, but they only applied to residential wells dug in combination with a septic system. That's because "90 percent" of homes served by wells are also served by septic systems, Hill said. Clifton Forest is served by the county sewer system.

Last year, the state finally passed a new law applying to all residential wells, whether or not they're connected to septic systems. But minimum well-water levels in the new law are merely suggestions, not enforceable requirements. Enforcement is left to individual counties' discretion.

Fairfax County never adopted local requirements, Hill said, because residential well guidelines already exist in the county code. Those guidelines, though, only address well construction, not water supply.

In almost any other case, Hill said, "checks and balances already are in place to prevent a situation like this."

To add to the irony, Clifton Forest could never be built today, because zoning in Vannoy Park since the mid-1970s has required builders to supply five acres of land per house, sufficiently low density to allow adequate well-water supply. But Clifton Forest had lingered undeveloped since the 1950s, when it was originally subdivided into half-acre lots.

Kim, the landowner who sold the property to Yeonas, could not be reached for comment.

Residents said they wouldn't have bought in Clifton Forest had they known about the low water levels. But several say they were assured by Yeonas company representatives that water was plentiful.

Peterson said he was told twice that his well's recovery rate -- the rate at which a well fills with water from its source -- was four to five gallons per minute, more than enough to replace water as it is used from the well. But last July, at the settlement on the purchase of his Clifton Forest home and just hours after he had closed on the sale of his Rosslyn condominium, he and his wife read in the paperwork that the water flow in their new home was only a half-gallon per minute.

"We were shocked, but we had no place to go," he said.

Clifton Forest resident Nancy Bishop said she saw the same half-gallon-per-minute rate for her well just before closing, but she said a Yeonas representative told her the measurement didn't reflect recent work on the well that should increase the flow to four or five gallons per minute.

Later, the well failed, she said. Bishop and her husband, Dan, had a second well dug, at the builder's expense, which also produced less water than the family was using. A third well was dug, also at Yeonas's expense, and water supply is adequate for now, Nancy Bishop said. But county codes leave no place to sink a fourth well on the lot, and the Bishops are nervous.

"I promised my wife I'd put in a pool if we moved here," said Ken Wright, another Clifton Forest resident. A Yeonas representative, he said, "told me my flow was 60 gallons a minute, the best in the development."

But last summer, he said, the tub faucet ran dry. Later, the garden hose ran dry.

Other Clifton Forest residents report similar problems. According to Etris of the Water Authority, many of Clifton Forest's wells have tested at recovery rates of a half-gallon or less per minute, which the county says is barely enough to operate their sewage systems during peak use times.

By contrast, the state recommends a five-gallon-per-minute recovery rate for residential wells for safe operation of sewer facilities. Wells yielding less than three gallons a minute, the state suggests, should be equipped with extra storage capacity to ensure adequate water supply and pressure. While extra storage tanks have been installed at several Clifton Forest homes, residents say they are inadequate.

"One woman at the {county} Health Department told me if I want to find water here I should call a well witch," said Nancy Bishop.

In most cases, the solution -- a hookup to the county water supply -- would be relatively simple. Most residential developments lie near an existing county water main, Etris said, and residents could hook up to the main for roughly the cost of sinking additional wells. Clifton Forest, though, lies nearly a mile from the nearest main, a distance the county estimates will cost $500,000 to traverse, not counting about $4,000 per house in hookup costs.

By law the county Water Authority can contribute a maximum of $80,000 toward a pipeline, $40,000 if another county agency or third party, such as a builder, is involved in the project. At best, that leaves residents of the 22-home development facing a bill of about $420,000, or $19,091 per home plus hookup fees.

Residents have asked Yeonas to help pay the bill, a suggestion the builder's attorney, in a Feb. 5 letter to homeowners, called "both ridiculous and counterproductive."

The county could appropriate funds, but with local budget woes mounting, as Etris said, "that's problematical in this day and age."

In the end, homeowners may face the choice of paying for the pipeline themselves or living with the problem. Said one individual involved in the dispute: "I don't think it's a solution any of us wants to see, but I have heard it said in this case that it's a matter of the adage: 'Let the buyer beware.' "