A change in the county code aimed at reducing Prince William County’s growing deer population has some worried that allowing bow hunting in close-knit neighborhoods could catch unsuspecting people and pets in the crossfire.
At issue is a code amendment that shrinks the mandated safety zone between bow hunters and “regularly occupied structures” – homes, businesses, schools and churches -- from 100 yards to 100 feet, a reduction of about 66 percent.
The change, which the county board of supervisors approved unanimously Jan. 13, effectively opens bow hunting to densely populated areas of Prince William, where most hunting had previously been banned.
- Read a copy of the code changes here
The change worries Rene Bunster and some of his neighbors, who are concerned the reduced safety zone poses risks to unsuspecting residents.
Bunster lives in Westminster at Lake Ridge, a retirement community where residents take walks on a hiking path that stretches above the wooded banks of the Occoquan Reservoir and toward River Ridge, an “active-adult” community nearby.
Bunster first learned a deer hunt might occur near Westminster in the fall of 2013, when River Ridge sought to bring in a Fairfax-based urban archery group to cull the local herd from neighborhood common areas in response to residents who were upset about the animals eating their plants and flowers.
But under the previous 100-yard safety zone, River Ridge had to get permission from Westminster, as well as other adjacent property owners. Westminster refused, mostly out of concern for residents’ safety.
Bunster says the new ordinance reducing the safety zone is too close. Besides unnerving residents, archers sometimes don’t kill on the first shot, which could result in wounded animals running onto Westminster grounds.
“As soon as that animal is wounded, it’s not going to stand around, it’s going to move,” Bunster said. “And at that point, the 100 feet distance is an inadequate safety zone.”
The change has also raised the ire of some River Ridge residents who say they’re concerned the code effectively allows all Prince William residents to shoot high-powered compound and crossbows from their own backyards -- so long as their arrows don’t cross public roads or walkways or land on a neighbors’ property without their permission.
One River Ridge resident who asked that her name not be printed, questioned whether the county did enough to publicize the proposed changes before they were passed.
“The kids play here and people walk here; they walk with their dogs,” she said. “How dangerous is that to have these hunters walk around with bows that are almost like machine guns? And who knows about it?”
Supervisors held a public hearing about the code change just prior to their vote, which was advertised twice over a two-week period in the Gainesville Times newspaper, as required by law, according to county spokesman Jason Grant.
“Way too many deer”
The code change has been welcomed, however, by local hunters as well as the Prince William Conservation Alliance and other environmental groups concerned about “over browsing” – excessive deer grazing of native forest underbrush that leads to an abundance of invasive plants and vines.
The Lake Ridge Parks and Recreation Association also supports the change, according to General Manager Ron Pereira, who spoke in favor of it during the Jan. 13 supervisors’ meeting.
Pereira said Lake Ridge “has way too many deer,” which have become both a nuisance and safety hazard to residents. Pereira said the LRPRA, which encompasses more than 7,000 homes and about 30,000 residents, is exploring a managed bow hunt as a way to thin the local herd, something that would not have been possible under the previous 100-yard safety zone.
“We have 1,200 acres,” Pereira said of the association’s wooded common area, which runs along the Occoquan Reservoir and behind homes and businesses. “But the county police drew a map and showed that with the 100-yard restriction there [was] nowhere to effectively implement a bow hunting deer-management program.”
If the LRPRA board decides to move ahead with a hunt, Pereira said, the association will proceed by giving residents ample notice and will likely hold town hall meetings to hear residents’ concerns.
Supervisors agreed to the lower the safety zone for bow-hunters only after referring the matter to the county’s Weapons Control Committee, an appointed panel tasked with researching and recommending changes to county laws pertaining to firearms and other weapons.
The committee began considering the change in early 2014 – a few months after the flap about the proposed River Ridge hunt – and held eight meetings to discuss whether the 100-yard safety zone should be changed for bow hunters and archery enthusiasts, which are treated equally under the code.
Chairman David O’Neil said the weapons committee considered the 100-yard rule too restrictive for bow tackle because its typical range is much shorter than that of a firearm.
While a bullet can travel as much as two miles, even the most powerful bows are capable of shooting arrows a maximum of 1,000 feet -- but only if shot into the air. Bow-hunters shooting down from a tree stand typically shoot at a range no more than 40 yards.
“So we decided that 100 feet would be reasonably understandable by people,” O’Neill said, noting it’s easily gauged without a tape measure, as two strides measure about five feet. “And it seemed to be reasonable for archery equipment in general.”
Also, he said the residential density of the county had made bow hunting or even archery target-practice nearly impossible under the 100-yard rule.
“We found that at the 100-yard distance, which is a very typical number [for firearms], was pretty much starting to close down unrestricted hunting in Prince William County,” he added.
Regarding some residents’ concerns about the new rules, O’Neill, said wounded deer could be a concern, but it’s a problem for all hunters – not just bow-hunters – so the committee did not consider it part of their discussion.
Safety of nearby people and pets should be a hunter’s “No. 1 concern,” O’Neill added, but careful hunters keep a clear line of sight between themselves and their targets and typically hear anyone who might wander by.
“In hunting, you’re very still and you’re very quiet, you’re listening,” he added. “When humans move into an area, they make noise and you’re going to be able to see or hear them.”
Occoquan Supervisor Mike May, whose district includes Lake Ridge, River Ridge and Westminster, said he voted for the code change because both the weapons committee and police department officials said they considered the change safe and reasonable.
“You’re always concerned about safety when you’re talking about hunting, and the good news is that most people who hunt are concerned about following the rules and now they have a good ordinance they can follow,” May said. “We asked our experts, the police, to work with the WCC on regulation that made sense … so I don’t think it’s such a dramatic change as is maybe being suggested by some.”
Bunster and his like-minded River Ridge neighbors remain unconvinced. They say they hope publicity about the new ordinance will prompt more residents to protest the change.
Police Support New Code
Prince William Police Capt. Scott Vago, eastern district commander and a liaison to the WCC, told the board the police department agreed that the 100-foot safety zone is “reasonable” for bow-hunting and support the change.
Vago said the committee studied surrounding jurisdictions and found no “bright lines” indicating common safety zone distances. Arlington County outlaws any hunting within 100 yards of occupied buildings, for example, but Fairfax County, which is known for its deer-culling urban archery programs in public parks, sets no distance limit for hunting on private property.
Regarding whether the reduced safety zone for bow-hunting could put children in danger, Vago said parents need to be aware of the new rules and know where their kids are playing.
If parents don’t know exactly what’s happening where their kids are, “their kids probably shouldn’t be playing there,” he added.