By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Larry Hirsch got so fed up watching ducks get shot out of the sky that he hatched a plan to get rid of the hunter who hunkered down in the duck blind behind his Fairfax County home. He's not a hunter, but Hirsch acquired the right to build the only duck blind allowed in that spot on the Potomac River.
Hirsch, 55, went out a few times and fired his shotgun, pretending to duck hunt and thereby fulfilling the requirement of his license.
The plan worked, because Hirsch's landowner rights trumped those of the hunter, who had licensed the empty spot, and he was pushed out of his duck blind at least for a year.
This so miffed the hunter, Robert Bowe, who owns Bowe's and Arrows hunting shop in Fairfax, that Bowe finagled land rights from an absentee property owner down the block and built a new blind. He's been hunting there ever since, ignoring neighbors' complaints.
"I tried to be respectful to them until they tried to keep me from there," said Bowe, 63. "I tried to be nice. Now I'm going to hunt."
With two months until duck season, tensions are mounting in Fairfax between hunters and waterfront landowners. More than 100 people packed a public meeting July 9, at which officials from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries spelled out the rules for duck hunting.
Hunters call their sport a Virginia tradition and mobilize at any talk of rule changes. Environmentalists say hunting disturbs other wildlife. Homeowners say gunshots wake them up, stress them out, spook their pets and scare their children.
"In terms of sheer numbers, I get more complaints about duck hunting in suburban back yards than any other single thing," Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax) said. "Suburban swing sets and duck hunters are incompatible neighbors."
Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said vast residential growth along the river has spiked tensions by moving residents closer to hunters.
"This is a conflict between two types of activity: between the right to have quiet in one's home and the right of others to hunt on the river," Hyland said.
Jurisdictional issues complicate the matter. Maryland controls most of the river, so Virginians might hear hunters licensed in Maryland. And Virginia oversees only certain embayment areas, including Little Hunting and Dogue creeks and the area south of the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, where Hirsch lives.
Ultimately, the county must strike a balance between its ordinance banning gunfire "in areas of the county which are so heavily populated as to make such conduct dangerous" and those places where the state allows hunting.
"I don't find it reasonable to have someone . . . awakened at 6:15 in the morning to the sound of gunfire in populous Fairfax County," Hyland said of a jurisdiction with more than 1 million people. Even in rural areas, "you don't hunt around the farmhouse."
Duck hunting season runs from Oct. 4 to Jan. 26. Waterfront landowners in Virginia can get licenses for blinds in the water off their property in July and August. If they pass, others can license the spots through September. As long as they are 100 yards from homes, they can build blinds, and they don't have to consult homeowners.
This is how Hirsch's neighborhood, with multimillion-dollar homes scattered in the woods between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the river, ended up with duck blinds so close to homes. Most residents moved to the area for its serene nature -- and paid dearly for it. Their primary complaint concerns noise.
"It's very disturbing to be trying to write Christmas cards and to hear shooting," said Elizabeth Ketz-Robinson, 59, a psychotherapist who lives on the water with her husband, Don, and three golden retrievers. "I want to tear my hair out sometimes."
Bowe considers such complaints exaggerated. Duck season occurs in the fall and winter, when windows are shut, he said. Airplanes and motorboats cause more ruckus. He believes that opposition to hunting motivates most complaints.
"Are you hearing shots, or does it bother you that someone is out there hunting?" he asked.
"I guarantee they can hear it in their houses," said Don Roberts, Bowe's hunting buddy, whose blind is near the south end of the neighborhood. "But it's not like thunder rolling across the sky."
Virginia's regulations give landowners little recourse, causing more conflicts than elsewhere in the region. The District bans all hunting, and waterfront owners in Maryland can license blinds without hunting, said Robert Beyer, associate director of the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service, and many do so they can keep hunters out.
But Virginia doesn't allow defensive licensing; licensees must both build a blind and hunt from it.
This leaves few options for the American Horticultural Society headquarters, near Dyke Marsh. Housed on a 25-acre farm, with an organic meadow and numerous birdhouses, there is a duck blind less than 20 yards from the shore, said Trish Gibson, the farm's manager.
"We're trying to find a happy balance with wildlife so we make it a happy place for the duck," she said. "And then there's a duck blind right in front of our place."
Gibson said one person refused to support the nonprofit group because of the blind, which her organization can get rid of only by licensing the spot on its own and building and hunting from it. The group has no plans to do so, she said.
Bowe's blind near the south end of the Dyke Marsh preserve rankles environmental groups.
"I think it's inappropriate," said Glenda Booth, president of Friends of Dyke Marsh. "I think it's incompatible with the purpose for which Dyke Marsh was created." Dyke Marsh, a 485-acre site run by the National Park Service, is a wetlands habitat prized by birdwatchers and other animal lovers.
But hunters say they're not anti-environment. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries spends $100,000 a year from license fees on wetlands projects, said Jerry Sims, regional wildlife manager. And all hunters must buy a $10 duck stamp, which brings in an additional $140,000 a year for waterfowl-related projects.
The proximity of guns to homes also raises safety concerns.
"Anytime anyone has a weapon of any kind, there's always a chance of an incident," said Katherine Ward of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations. "The whole environment has changed from rural to urban over the years, so how do we accommodate?"
Bowe scoffs at such worries.
"I'm not going to pick up my gun and shoot at you," he said. "I know the difference between a kayak and a duck. The duck tastes better."
Since 1960, the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Department has recorded 28 waterfowl hunting incidents, none in Fairfax, Sims said. Seven were fatal. All but four of the incidents took place within 50 yards, Sims added, in most cases meaning the hunter shot someone in his own party.
"No one has ever misidentified an orange or a yellow kayak as a duck," he said. "Folks just need to get along and share the resources."
Hirsh has resigned himself to Bowe's blind. A contractor, he has built four large houses on the block; the most recent is listed at $3.6 million, he said. All look out on the blind. He doesn't oppose hunting, he said, and keeps a loaded 9mm pistol near his bed.
"I just wish there was a little more consideration given," he said. He has no intention of trying to oust Bowe again.
"These days, I spend more and more of my time in the winter in the Caribbean," he said, "so it doesn't bother me that much."