Howard County is cracking down on dozens of Columbia homeowners who have encroached on county parkland adjacent to their homes.
The homeowners are using the parkland as if it belonged to them -- not the county, parks administrators say. In some cases, they have set up swing sets, planted gardens and created compost heaps on the county-owned land.
At one home, surveyors said they discovered an in-ground swimming pool that crosses onto park land, and county officials say it will probably have to be dug up.
"We couldn't believe that we would have a swimming pool, one-third of which was not on the owner's property," said Mark Raab of the county parks bureau's Land Management Division.
As the county prepares to take ownership of the 1,050-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, which now belongs to the Rouse Co., officials are telling owners of adjacent land to retreat into their own back yards.
The county is buying, perhaps by this fall, about 950 acres for $1.9 million from Rouse to complete the environmental area, which will be maintained as a natural resource for the region and a learning tool for county schoolchildren.
But many of the park's neighbors see the land as common property available for their use, county officials said.
"I would bet you couldn't look at a piece of open space and not find some example of encroachment," said Jeffrey Bourne, county director of Recreation and Parks.
The county, Rouse and the Columbia Association jointly mailed some 240 letters in February to residents whose property adjoins the park. Crews would be surveying the land, and encroachment problems would have to be resolved, the letter said.
Clary's Forest homeowner Jeffrey Abrams, whose swimming pool is considered to be across the border, insists that his surveyors place the pool squarely on his property. He said he does maintain a small piece of the environmental area as a lawn with a swing set.
Before those changes, he said, "It was a rather wild and bug-infested area."
New parkland regulations that take effect July 6 set penalties of $100 to $250 a day for destroying or disturbing open space, and $50 to $100 a day for encroachment.
But county park officials will avoid enforcing the new regulations if they can coax homeowners into compliance through general announcements to the community, individual letters and meetings.
Bourne said there's more involved than just staking claim to the property. For example, if a child falls off of a swing set and is injured, the county could be sued for damages.
The county also has an obligation to prevent neighbors from disturbing plant and animal habitats, Bourne said.
Some residents have dumped yard waste and sprayed pesticides and fertilizer on environmentally sensitive areas.
The environmental area has been in the works for a decade and is part of the master plan for the development of Columbia.
In working out the details of the massive land transfer, the county has encouraged the Columbia Association to take over management of a buffer area next to Columbia homes.
"If it's county property, I think the county should maintain it," said Charles Ahalt, the Columbia Council representative for Hickory Ridge village, which includes Clary's Forest. His feelings are shared by the association's staff.
"It was very evident that the county wanted no responsibility for handling encroachments, dumping by residents, dead tree removal, nor any other responsibilities of the property owner where it involved Columbia property," wrote Fred Pryor, who is responsible for the association's open space, in a letter about the preserve.
But Bourne said the county frequently licenses its land to homeowners' associations to allow them to maintain land more efficiently.