For years, the Northern Virginia real estate industry has been trying to blunt a weapon that utilities wield against property owners.

When utility bills are ignored, the utilities can -- and do -- slap liens on properties, even if a tenant, and not the owner, is at fault.

Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), who owns a property management firm, thinks that's wrong and is out to right the question during the current legislative session.

Barry, who is president of Barry Associates Inc. in Springfield, which manages shopping centers, warehouses and office buildings in Fairfax, is sponsoring a bill that would sharply limit the liability of property owners for their tenants' utility bills.

"I think the power that the utilities have is unconstitutional," Barry said. "Can you charge for service for which you didn't contract? One warehouse owner got stuck with a $1,600 water bill run up by his lessee."

Despite his role in the real estate industry, Barry says he does not see his sponsorship of the bill as a conflict of interest. "I don't own buildings," he said. "I have no financial interest. I do manage properties. bI suppose there might be someone who would say there is a remote possibility of conflict of interest."

Barry's bill and a companion measure offered by Del. Floyd C. Bagley (D-Prince William), aimed at sanitary districts in Prince William, sailed through the House of Delegates, 98 to 0, and were sent to the Senate's Local Government Commitee.

While the Barry bill has the strong backing of the state real estate industry, including the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors, it is opposed by the Fairfax County Water Authority, the major utility in Northern Virginia, and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors.

Answering Barry's charges that landlords are being unfairly punished, water authority spokesman James Warfield said: "If someone rents a house or commercial building, that's a business, and (unpaid bills) are a cost of business."

Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) agrees with the water authority and plans to vote aginst the bill. "It would seem to cripple the authority's ability to collect bills," said Gartlan, a lawyer. "(Landlords) have the power to protect themselves. They can write a lease so that a tenant's failure to pay utility bills constitutes automatic default."