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Water, Water Everywhere

Vienna residents learn about the impact of stream buffers on their property.

Ronald Harvey came looking for some clarification. "I could write a book on the number of things I've been told by the Town, and nobody would believe it," he said.

Harvey was one of about a dozen Vienna residents who live along Wolftrap Creek who came to a meeting on Jan. 5 organized by Del. Steve Shannon (D-35th) to discuss the impact of stream buffers on their property.

Harvey has been told a variety of things about what he can build on his land. The meeting was designed to explain to some property owners, particularly those near Branch Avenue Southeast, what they can do. "We're trying to make some changes that will allow neighbors to build what they want to build in a way that's consistent with the current law," Shannon said.

The buffers are the result of the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act, which states that new construction cannot occur within 100 feet of the edge of a stream that has a perennial, or year-round, flow.

Buffers have been in place for some time, said Scott Crafton of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. "There has always been a 100-foot buffer there," he said.

Buffers, which are also known as Resource Protection Areas or RPAs, were first established in 1993, Crafton said. What has changed recently is the process for permitting development in those buffered areas.

Previously some limited building in the buffers could be accomplished through an administrative review process, but now construction requires a formal public hearing.

In an effort to speed up the process for residents, the Town is considering adopting a set of regulations that would allow minor changes to be made without the hearing process. The regulations have already been adopted by the City of Alexandria (see sidebar) and approved by the state. "We do publicly embrace what I refer to as ‘the Alexandria method,’" said Greg Hembree, of the Town's Department of Planning and Zoning.

"It balanced the fact that you have a piece of property that's yours — it's a huge investment — with the fact that we want to protect water quality," said David Bulova, of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District.

IN LESS DEVELOPED areas of the state, the impact of such buffers is not as pronounced, Crafton said, since the streams do not flow through existing lots. However, when these buffers are in place in already developed areas, such as Vienna, residents who live along streams may lose some buildable area.

Hembree was ready with aerial photos of the area and the plats of residents who needed them so that he could show people what they could do on their land.

This is beginning to become an issue, Hembree explained, because of the amount of redevelopment and renovations that are occurring in the town. "Everybody is deciding, 'We're going to do something with our house,'" he said.

"We're committed to the Preservation Act," said Vienna Town Councilmember Laurie Cole. "We're just trying to give the citizens better guidance."