About 9,100 property owners in Prince William County have homes and land in Chesapeake Bay resource protection areas, flood plains where development and construction are severely restricted.
But many of them don't know it, said Wade Hugh, Prince William's chief of watershed management.
This month, the county sent those property owners letters explaining the designation and inviting them to a public meeting on the areas, known as RPAs, at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at the McCoart Administrative Complex. At a Board of County Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Hugh is scheduled to give the supervisors a preview of what his division will tell the public Aug. 1.
At that meeting, residents will get general information about RPAs and can sign up for county visits to their property to see whether they are in compliance, Hugh said.
"As more and more people move into the county, they don't know that they are in resource protection areas," Hugh said. That has led to violations, mostly for "overclearing," he said.
Hugh said the numbers of violations were not immediately available, but "it's safe to say that we are seeing an increasing trend."
Property owners, especially homeowners who buy land on the Potomac River or other bodies of water, want a clear view and cut down trees to get it -- a violation of RPA laws, he said. The hope is that residents are simply ignorant and are not flagrantly violating RPA laws, he said.
There is often confusion because property owners who developed on their property before 1990 can maintain their clearings while property owners who acquired their land after that year must maintain a buffer, Hugh said. "They look at both neighbors on either side of them and say it's all right. Well, [not if] you bought your property after 1990," Hugh said.
Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, said the county has had difficulty enforcing the RPA laws. "The reasons that they've been difficult to enforce is part of a larger picture. . . . This is Virginia. It's a property-rights state, and people are reluctant" to comply.
She recalled some outstanding violations from 2002. "Unaddressed violations can cause damage to the Chesapeake Bay," she said.
The county voluntarily adopted the Chesapeake Preservation Act, a 1988 state mandate that requires local communities in the Tidewater region to create ordinances regulating RPAs. The act was implemented to curb pollution and runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
Although state law allows jurisdictions to impose fines as high as $10,000 for violations, the county does not fine and tries to work with property owners to reverse damage, Hugh said.
When cited with a violation, a property owner must submit a restoration plan to the county to replace what was cut down or cleared, he said. "It's fairly expensive," he said. "You replicate what you had before."
RPAs are located throughout the county, Hugh said, including in the Powells Creek, Kettle Run, Slate Run and Bull Run areas.
Hosen said she does not think the county has taken full advantage of its power to create RPAs. "It's a great start because buffers are our last and best defense against pollution," she said. "A letter should have gone out to everybody, not just 9,000 houses. Anyone with a creek or adjacent to a creek could theoretically have an RPA."