Sometimes, George Patterson has come home at night, seen the dust cloud, and turned around and left.
"I couldn't breathe. It's so thick, like a fog. You can smell dust and silt in the house," Patterson said.
Patterson lives in a Modesto subdivision south of the Tuolumne River and east of Carpenter Road. To the south of that subdivision is a large, undeveloped field that's part of the Fairview Village development plan.
No one is building houses there, but plenty of people have been riding off-road vehicles: motorcycles, ATVs, four-wheel-drive trucks. And they've been kicking up clouds of dust that make life miserable for nearby homeowners.
"You can't open the windows during the summer. The dust is 2 inches thick," said Joe Couch, another resident. "You can't even have a barbecue in your yard."
The problem has gotten better in the past week or two, Couch said, after a renewed effort by the Modesto Police Department to resolve the problem. But area residents and police officials don't think the problem has been solved.
"It's a temporary fix," Couch said. "There are riders periodically. All it takes is for one biker for 20 minutes and we are saturated."
Off-road riders have been using the property for years and have built a makeshift track with hills and holes to navigate, according to Police Lt. Chris Fuzie. A large depression on the property attracts off-roaders and even partiers at night. Riders refer to the area as "Honda Hills," Fuzie said.
The subdivision to the north was built about three years ago.
The vacant land is owned by Westport Modesto Investment LLC, headed by Darrell Leamon. Leamon says he is as annoyed by the situation as everyone else. He and a group of investors have spent at least $20,000 maintaining the property, he said.
Barriers put up at one point were broken down, and off-road riders ignore "no trespassing" signs, he said. Trespassers even have brought earth-moving equipment onto the site to grade a track, Leamon said.
The property was fenced in, but another developer took the fence down and never replaced it, Leamon said.
Leamon has signed four letters giving the Police Department the authority to arrest trespassers.
"They ignored the petitions to enforce the law over there, until the neighborhood turned up the heat on them," Leamon said.
Many of the motorcycle riders using the property were not aware they were trespassing, said Matt Wilkinson, a parts department employee at Honda-Kawasaki of Modesto.
"It had become so established in the riding community, no one really thought they were breaking rules," he said. "People went out there for a long time without a problem."
Wilkinson said the site offered a local place that riders could go for an hour or two. Parks dedicated to off-road vehicles are located near LaGrange, Tracy and in Del Puerto Canyon in western Stanislaus County. But Wilkinson noted that they charge a $5 entrance fee and require a drive of 30 minutes or more.
Owner wants to build homes
Leamon said he still wants to build homes on the 100-acre parcel, but has been frustrated by city planners requiring ever-more-expensive studies.
City senior planner Paul Liu said a subdivision application had been filed with the city but then was withdrawn. "There's no plan for it at this point," he said.
Potential permanent solutions to the dust problem include fencing the property, posting more "no trespassing" signs, and bulldozing the hills and holes, said police Sgt. Kathleen Blom.
Leamon agreed to post an additional 20 signs, and they went up Monday. Leamon has two ideas for a permanent solution -- the police start issuing citations or the city allows him to develop the property.
In the meantime, police have dropped off fliers at local motorcycle shops warning riders not to use the property, Blom said.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District received a complaint about the property about six weeks ago and sent the owner a letter, saying he was required to take action to keep people off the property, said spokesman Anthony Presto. New signs were put up after the letter was sent, Presto said.
"The next step would be physical barriers, but right now we are not at that stage," Presto said. "We don't feel we need to go out again unless we receive another complaint."
The situation was complicated recently when the Modesto Fire Department used the property for training purposes. The department uses vacant fields several times a year to practice four-wheel-drive maneuvers in the brush firetrucks, said Chief Jim Miguel.
Miguel said he thought the department had permission to use the property, but he discovered after complaints that it didn't. The training exercises aren't at high speed and don't kick up dust, Miguel said.
Couch agreed, but added that the presence of the firetrucks encourages off-roaders to use the site.
Miguel said that during the last exercise on the Westport Modesto site, there were 15 to 20 motorcycles "waiting for us to leave so they could go in."
The fire chief said the department will not use the site anymore.
"We have stopped. I'm sorry if we caused some neighbors some problems," he said.
For the time being, residents are breathing a little easier, but they are worried that the problem will return. Couch reported seeing a motorcyclist in the field Thursday.
"The problem is not solved until we have that hole filled. We need bulldozers, and it needs to be fenced off," Couch said.
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2349.