Sharon and George Toly paid an extra $13,000 for their home near Bel Air so they could be next to a mature hardwood forest and a winding stream called Wysong Branch.
Assured that the stream and woodlands -- home to deer, foxes and other wildlife -- would remain undisturbed, the Tolys considered the additional cost in December a good investment.
That is, they thought that way until a Harford County official showed up at their door recently and informed them of a utility easement and a developer's plans to cut a 40-or-50-foot-wide swath through oaks, beeches and poplars, some of them 50 to 75 feet tall.
The Tolys and their neighbors learned that although they had paid premiums of $8,000 to $13,000 to live next to wooded wetlands, a developer, Stanley Lloyd of Jarrettsville, planned to install a sewer line that would run more than a mile along Wysong Branch, a tributary of Bynum Run.
Mr. Lloyd submitted an application for the project a year ago, and county officials say the sewer line has been planned since the 1960s.
Residents said real estate agents and state environmental officials had told them that homeowners couldn't disturb the wetlands or a buffer that runs along them.
No permanent structures could be erected in the wetlands area. Decks built on homes couldn't encroach on the buffer area. One resident's deck is a mere 5 feet wide because of that restriction.
"If we couldn't do such small things, we would never imagine such destruction could occur," said Mrs. Toly, referring to the sewer project.
"We can't put a birdhouse on one of the trees, but they can cut down the trees," said Catherine Hood, another resident of the Longmeadow community, which borders Wysong Branch.
The Wysong Branch dispute has come to a head quickly -- because residents learned of the planned sewer line within weeks of a Harford County Council vote on the project as part of the county water and sewer plan. The council may vote on the plan as early as Tuesday.
"They have a legitimate argument," County Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, a District C Democrat, said of the residents.
Such confrontations occur all too often, Mrs. Pierno said. "Most of the time, the community doesn't even know a project is planned until the land is being cleared," she said.
Mrs. Pierno and Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, a District A Republican, are drafting legislation designed to ensure that residents are told about adjacent projects and to involve citizens in the development process earlier.
"The county is in the Dark Ages about letting people know what's happening," said Charles Garrett, who paid a premium of for property adjoining Wysong Branch. "At no time were we told that there were plans for a future sewer line."
Flo Tucker, a real estate agent representing Stapf Homes, the build er of the Longmeadow homes, said she did not recall residents being verbally notified of the sewer line easement behind their homes. "I think they were aware of it," she said, adding that it was noted on plats posted on the walls of the Stapf Homes office.
The Longmeadow residents -- and state and federal regulators -- say tree-cutting associated with the sewer project could result in a warming of the stream, identified as habitat that can support native trout, which need cooler water.
The residents also fear erosion during the construction will foul the waterway, killing aquatic life.
"It strikes me that there should be a better way to get that sewer line through the area," said County Councilman Phillip J. Barker, a District F Democrat, one of several council members to visit the Longmeadow community recently.
Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore, who are reviewing a wetlands permit application for the sewer project along with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said they disagreed with the developer's contention that the impact of the construction would be temporary.
"There still appear to be alternative [routes for the sewer line] that need to be explored," said Maria Horton, a DNR official reviewing the wetlands permit application. She called the Wysong Branch valley "a nice, contiguous tract of forest. It's a nice corridor, beautiful stream."
Mr. Lloyd said last week that he would be willing to discuss a new sewer alignment -- one that would not encroach on the stream valley. The developer said he needs the sewer line for a small commercial development planned at U.S. 1 and Route 543 in Hickory.
"I'm certainly not interested in fighting anyone," Mr. Lloyd said. "I'm interested in getting a sewer to my property."
Planning sewer lines along stream valleys is common in Maryland, said engineers and environmentalists. They follow the natural grade of the land, without the use of pumping stations, so they are cheaper. But environmental regulators are beginning to think twice about the practice. "We really would rather not see" sewer lines through sensitive stream valleys such as Wysong Branch, Ms. Horton said.
Dr. Curtis Bohlen, a staff scientist with the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private watchdog group, agreed.
"You are messing up in many cases what is the last piece of natural area in a suburban development," he said.