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Votes

Preservation Ordinance Gains Teeth

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When the weather is nice, Gus Anderson of McLean likes to take his seven-year-old daughter kayaking along the Potomac River from Angler’s Inn to Lock 10.

“A lot of that is parkland,” said Anderson. “It’s a very natural area. But sticking out like a sore thumb are a couple of properties that seem to want to make themselves stick out in a natural environment”

Anderson described how one property owner along the Potomac had installed a walkway down to a deck on the waterside.

“You’re paddling down an almost completely natural environment and come to these glaring white steps that come off the hill,” said Anderson. “It seems like he went out of his way to thumb his nose at people who use the park across the river.”

Although ordinances exist to protect natural areas along the Potomac River and the streambed system throughout Fairfax County, some developers and property owners have taken to clearing trees from the natural buffer zones or building structures within the floodplains.

“One of Fairfax County’s greatest and most threatened natural resources is its system of beautiful stream valleys,” said Katie Goldberg, the director of land protection of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. “Thirty separate drainage basins in Fairfax contain approximately 850 streams, all ultimately draining into the Chesapeake Bay.”

In 1993, Fairfax County adopted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance in order to protect its streams. It limited the use and development of resource protection areas (RPAs) along the streambeds.

“However, the absence of penalty provisions for violations of the ordinance and a lack of clarity regarding certain provisions has severely limited its effectiveness as a determent to destruction of green valley habitats,” said Goldberg.

<mh>Enforcement

<bt>At its Jan. 24 meeting, the Fairfax County Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve amendments to clarify the language of and to strengthen the enforcement of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance.

“The proposed amendments address issues relating to violations and penalties, restoration of Chesapeake Bay Preservation areas and the removal of indigenous vegetation from resource protection areas,” said John Friedman of the Fairfax County department of public works and environmental services.

The amendments provided guidelines about the removal of indigenous vegetation in order to improve sightlines and access paths through resource protection buffers or as part of habitat management or shoreline erosion control projects. Developers or property owners would now have to seek prior approval from the county to remove any indigenous vegetation from resource protection buffers for the purpose of creating vistas or installing pathways or decks.

The amendments also added teeth to those enforcing the Chesapeake Preservation Act and the protection of sensitive environmental area. “They make criminal violations a class one misdemeanor and provide for a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each day of violation or a one-time payment of a civil charge not to exceed $10,000 for each violation,” said Friedman.

<mh>Increased Development

<bt>Speaking to the commission, Matt Berrers of the Potomac Conservancy reported that his group had witnessed increased development within sensitive areas along the Potomac River and its tributaries within Fairfax County.

“The development ranges from the clearing of trees and vegetation, to road building and construction of decks, walkways and other structures,” said Berrers. “In many cases, these activities are taking place within designated RPAs, which are to be protected by county ordinance.”

“The changes they have made are enormously important,” said Frank Crandall of the Fairfax County Economic Quality Advisory Council. “Partially through better defining exactly what is meant by various regulations and partly by enabling the local governments to establish meaningful penalties.”

“This program has really been implemented over a number of years,” said at-large planning commissioner Walter Alcorn. “I don’t think there’s too much in here that’s too much of a surprise. There have actually been criminal penalties in place for much of this. But it’s a different standard to enforce. The civil penalties will allow for expedited enforcement.”

“One of our major sources of drinking water is the Potomac River,” said Alcorn. “Over time, it’s very important that the Potomac remain an ecologically healthy source for drinking water as well as recreation.”