I live in the Semi-Rural Region located in the middle of Prince William County, Virginia. We are zoned to protect the performance of the Occoquan Watershed and preserve the quality of the Occoquan River and the Occoquan Reservoir, a source of drinking water for most of Northern Virginia.
I am also on a Committee to come up with recommendations for the Occoquan Reservoir Overlay Area. We consist of a half a dozen civic minded folks who care enough to give Prince William County a couple hours of their time once a month to explore this issue. An overlay district is actually additional zoning requirements for a specified geographic area to recognize and protect its unique properties. In the case of the Occoquan Watershed, the Overlay District is intended to provide zoning rules to reduce damaging pollution, bad environmental and horticultural management practices, poorly managed storm water runoff, and perhaps environmentally inefficient construction and development practices. We all agreed that it will take a couple of years to properly understand the science and apply the science to this issue.
But those of us who actually live in the Occoquan Watershed and the SRR (the watershed is bigger than the SRR) don't have to wait. We can do things now to improve water quality in Northern Virginia.
The best thing a landowner can do to improve the environment and protect the watershed is nothing. Most of our attempts to manipulate a system that we don't understand have actually made things worse. We create expansive poisoned "dead zones" we call yards that are pretty much void of any biological activity. We manicure our woods to look like parks. We bring in non-native plants to brighten our environment. We think in terms of "our yard" instead of "our place in the ecosystem." Our county government actually encourages and mandates rules to homeowners that make things worse.
If you live on an acre or more (those of us in the SRR live on one to five acre lots), the best thing you can do to protect the environment is to let most of your property return to natural succession. That's a fancy way of saying "do nothing." Let nature take its course. An empty field that has been mowed for years will quickly "come to life" with trees and plants and start a hundred year cycle of growth and maturity (natural succession). Animals of all kinds will return to the field to complete the ecosystem. When a tree dies, don't cut it down. It will become a natural host to birds and insects. When it falls, let it lay and decompose for the same reason. Don't mow or remove trees. Nature left to its own devices is engaged in a succession management plan that includes generations of different types of trees and plants until the forest reaches its natural climax (in a hundred years or so). Of course, there are safety considerations. If a tree is a fire hazard to your home or a safety threat top your family, you should consult an arborist and remove it if necessary.
There are fun programs that can help you manage your property, whether it be a townhouse in Dale City, a couple of acres in the SRR, or a large property in the Rural Crescent. I am a member of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. I recently had my property certified as a Audubon Society at Home Wildlife Sanctuary by an Audubon Ambassador. This program teaches homeowners how to make their property "environmentally friendly" to Virginia Native Sanctuary species. It explores native plants, wildlife management, forestry, and other topics to make your property more friendly to the environment. I'm in the process of becoming an Audubon Ambassador. Feel free to contact me (through a comment on this blog) if you would like me to take a look at your property.
Back to the Occoquan Overlay District. When we are done, we will recommend that our county government explore specific recommendations that we may offer and initiate an official activity defining the special zoning requirements necessary to protect the Occoquan Watershed. This will take a couple of years (or more). Implementation will cost money and rely on government staff.
I propose that if people are inclined to do the right thing if they know what is the right thing to do. Programs such as the Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary tell people "the right thing to do." It is managed and executed by volunteers and costs the taxpayer nothing. The program is free to homeowners (other than a little of their time). The results perhaps enhance neighborhood property values, improve the Occoquan Watershed, contribute to the health of Prince William County's environment, and improve the quality of Northern Virginia's drinking water.
I would even suggest that we share this program with Prince William County developers so they may incorporate this program into the construction of new homes. I'm just guessing a "Certified Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary" sign posted in a new home's front yard just might be appealing to a potential new homeowner.
I suggest that perhaps while we are working on the Occoquan Overlay District, Prince William County Government and civic groups should recognize and promote the Northern Virginia Audubon Society's Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary Program to teach homeowners "the right thing to do" now.
If enough people respond, we might not even need an overlay district.