Visits to houses and land that Prince William County designated as Resource Protection Areas of the Chesapeake Bay found that those flood plains where construction is severely restricted might not exist.
Over the summer, the county contacted 9,100 property owners to tell them they were in Resource Protection Areas, meaning they can't cut down trees or brush -- a common wish of homeowners who buy property on the Potomac River or streams and want a view of the water.
At an Aug. 1 public meeting on the issue, 49 property owners requested that the county visit their land, said Wade Hugh, the county's chief of watershed management.
The county found that 22 of them did not have Resource Protection Areas and that 11 of the 49 had incorrect locations for RPAs. Just 12 Resource Protection Areas were confirmed, Hugh said. The remaining four properties were never identified as having RPAs, but the owners requested visits from the county.
The findings were reported to the Board of County Supervisors last month. A new 16-member citizen review committee will meet for the first time in about two weeks to study the impact on property owners, complying with environmental regulations and other issues involving Resource Protection Areas, Hugh said.
In the meantime, "if people think they do not have RPAs, they should contact us," board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) said. "We are wiping them off the map."
The county has an ordinance on Resource Protection Areas because it voluntarily adopted the Chesapeake Preservation Act, a 1998 mandate that requires local communities in the Tidewater region to regulate the areas. The act was created to stop pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
In Prince William, property owners who bought their land before 1990 can keep their clearings but those who bought after 1990 must maintain RPAs, which act as buffers to protect the bay.
The issue of Resource Protection Areas has been highly charged, pitting property rights against environmental concerns. Environmentalists question whether the county included all properties near water when it designated the Resource Protection Areas, and property rights advocates question whether the county included too many.
Prince William will not do a blanket inspection of all 9,100 properties, Hugh said. "People say, 'Why don't you go out and verify all this stuff?' Well, it can be costly."
That policy is unfair and infringes on the basic rights of a property owner, said Warren Christolon, a member of Prince William Concerned Citizens. "To remove it [as a Resource Protection Area], they have to be allowed to trespass onto your private property," he said.
Christolon said he cannot believe the county designated Resource Protection Areas without doing an extensive review in the beginning.
The county created the RPA designations through information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and developers, who must identify bodies of water when applying to build, Hugh said. In some cases, the drainage conditions of a property might have changed, causing the reason for a Resource Protection Area to disappear, Hugh said.
In other cases, "it could have been over-mapped," he said. "You didn't lose the RPA. It wasn't an RPA in the first place."
For those property owners who have confirmed Resource Protection Areas, the county will enforce them.
The county stops short of imposing fines of up to $10,000 for violating Resource Protection Areas but requires property owners who cut down or clear land in the areas to replace what was removed -- often an expensive task.
To check on a Resource Protection Area, call the watershed management office at 703-792-7070.