When Bob Warfield bought a house in the new Rockburn Township subdivision 11 1/2 years ago, the builder told him that a pipeline company had a 30-foot-wide right of way on the property.
Later, he said, he was told 50 feet. Then 60. Now - a week and a half after Colonial Pipeline Co. cut down three trees in what Warfield always assumed were his front and back yards - he's wondering what actually belongs to him.
"Every time they come out, it seems the easement gets bigger," said the Ellicott City resident, whose neighbors also lost trees. "At what point do they buy my house?"
The three pipelines that run underneath Rockburn Township stretch 2,700 miles from Texas to New York, surrounded by easements to protect them from harm. Colonial, which supplies jet fuel to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and about 80 percent of the gasoline, diesel fuel and home heating oil used in the Baltimore region, wants to keep the easements clear of trees and shrubs taller than 4 feet so pilots checking for problems have a clear view.
Workers cut down trees on at least a dozen lots in the Rockburn subdivision a week and a half ago as part of a campaign to clear the 37 miles of easements the company holds in Howard County. Steve Baker, spokesman for the Atlanta-based company, said it is the only way for Colonial's pilots to make sure no construction is occurring near the pipelines. Tree roots also can be a problem, he said.
"We do try to work with the community to minimize the impact," he said. "But, ultimately, this is an important safety and environmental issue. We are responsible for protecting the community and maintaining this pipeline."
Rockburn residents said the work was an unpleasant reminder that their property rights are not clear.
Every time they think they have determined what is theirs - to do with as they please - and what is restricted by Colonial's easement, the story changes, they say.
The company marks its easement boundaries with small flags, but they are not permanent fixtures.
Baker said the easements themselves have not changed since Rockburn residents moved in: Although they were 50 feet wide originally, they stretched to 60 feet in the 1980s when the company put in the third of the three pipelines, he said.
"That all predates the neighborhood," he said.
The subdivision plats, recorded with the county in 1988, show Colonial holding 60-foot right of ways. But neighbors say that is not what the builders and Colonial originally told them.
Tom Donovan, who lost four trees, said company officials stopped by when he was planting them about 11 years ago and showed him where the easement boundary was.
"I paced it off with them, and I said, 'Is this OK?'" he recalled. "There was only one tree that was within. But they've expanded it."
Joe Bakey, who moved into the neighborhood four years ago, said he bought his wooded lot with the understanding that the trees there were his to keep.
He has a document from a previous owner that shows Colonial approving tree-planting in the easement.
A possible mistake
But when workers came through the neighborhood, half the trees on his lot were cut down - nine plus half an evergreen, which lost its branches on one side because they were hanging over the line.
Walking across his property the day after, he gazed in frustration at the straw-covered spots where trees once stood.
"They took a beautiful home and a beautiful property and they absolutely destroyed the looks of it," he said. "I had absolutely no control over it."
Baker, the Colonial spokesman, said it is possible workers cut those trees in error. "I would like to hear more about it and see if we made a mistake," he said.
Even with the subdivision plats in hand, county Public Works Director James M. Irvin said, it would be difficult for residents to determine for themselves exactly where the easements stop - unless they hire a surveyor.
Irvin gets questions about easements every day. He guesses that hundreds of thousands exist invisibly all over the county, from public easements for streets and drainage to private rights of way between neighbors.
Most people don't understand how these land provisions work, let alone where the boundary lines are, he said.
"It's a fairly complex, arcane issue," Irvin said. "It's a right to go on the properties to conduct a certain activity that's defined in the document. It's not ownership."
But for Warfield, it is beginning to feel that way. If Colonial's easement extends 60 feet, he estimates that two-thirds of the half-acre he bought is out of his control - including his driveway.
He can't plant trees or tall bushes. Gardens are allowed, but Warfield said a company representative told him he could be arrested for digging in the easement unless Colonial workers are on hand to supervise.(Baker, who said some people grow small plants such as tomatoes on the easements, clarified that a garden shovel wouldn't be a problem - it's large equipment that the company worries about.)
Warfield wanted to at least move a few of the four trees slated for cutting to land that was undeniably his.
But after looking at the yard, company representatives would not give him permission because a landscaper would have to use heavy equipment, he said.
So Warfield cut down one of the pine trees himself, with plans to decorate it and hang a sign on the boughs: "Thank you, Colonial Pipeline."
He realizes that is mild as protests go.
"Nothing else we can do," he said. "We've all resigned ourselves to the fact that these people are too powerful."